Album Review: Perfect Pussy – Say Yes To Love

By Michael Papich

Perfect Pussy is a band fit for the present age. A supremely DIY punk band, Perfect Pussy started circulating their EP in minimalist packaging online. Some well-placed shows and blog appearances, and nearly a year later, the band’s debut album Say Yes To Love is on everyone’s “Must Listen” list for 2014.

And for good reason. Besides the naturally overlapping and chaotic guitars and singer Meredith Graves’ top-notch punk-vocal delivery, a defining characteristic of I have lost all desire for feeling was the gritty product quality that went beyond (or beneath) lo-fi. Would a new album see Perfect Pussy cleaned up and what would come out of that?

Say Yes To Love strikes a balance in the span of the barely more than 20 minutes that composes this new album, made up entirely of new material. Graves’ voice comes through more clearly here, no longer fighting to be heard over her bandmates, but not much more clearly. Songs also flow near-seemlessly into one another, but this is a skill that I have lost had as well. The guitars and drums are not changed much, with twin leads playing different rhythms and melodies that are a mix between a cooperative dance and a battle for supremacy.

But while I have lost was relatively one-note as far as tone, there is a startling amount of diversity on Perfect Pussy’s first album. “Interference Fits” is nostalgic and slow, or slow for Perfect Pussy, while “Driver” is threatening and triumphant and “Work” is a return to much of the same blistering punk anger that the original EP had.

Graves’ lyrics have changed to match the tone of her songs. On “Interference Fits,” we have a real look into her personal feelings when it comes to her life and love, as she sings “And then my friends began to fall in love/first with themselves and then with each other/I met my despair at midday light/and it was amazing and I almost cried.” The entire album has a theme of rejecting love and relationships and viewing them as something restrictive. On “Driver,” Graves sings “He steps to the dress and my skin/hell ripped the fucking river over to some other world/They dragged me/I have a history of surrender.” “Dig” gives some parameters and details to Graves’ feelings, as she yells “I have embraced my suffering/Twenty six years of false pretenses again/Pretending to care about men/I am loved insofar as I cherish this pain.”

What is incredible is how many lyrics Graves is able to fit in these songs. Most of Perfect Pussy’s songs are less than two and a half minutes, but still all of these impassioned lines are spat out. This comes to the two big exceptions on the album. While the longest song, “Advance Upon the Real,” takes up five minutes of the album, only about a minute and thirty seconds have any music in it. The rest is the faint drone of a guitar string. The album’s last song, “VII” (strangely, song #8 on the album), is a similarly sparse and odd four-minute instrumental, giving Perfect Pussy an experimental punk feel, but not a particularly interesting one.

One thing that has not changed much from the EP to the debut is Perfect Pussy’s main band and guitar-and-drum playing. While there is more diversity in tone, the band does not bring many surprises to the table. That is not to say that this is disappointing or takes away from the album to any great degree. The playing is fast and fun and fits in with Graves’ singing perfectly. Similar to Iceage’s ability to add in textured guitar playing in the midst of so much intensity, Perfect Pussy gives the listener something to really grab onto and appreciate in the sea of screaming and grinding. Songs like “Work” have an ethereal backing guitar for a time that gives the song so much more depth than a typical punk two-step.

Say Yes To Love is probably still too noisy and chaotic for general audiences, but a small adjustment in the mixing of this album, as well as some more creative choices as far as lyric writing and chord writing, has opened Perfect Pussy up to some exciting new worlds and possibilities. Hopefully the more experimental side that the band exhibited on the last piece of the album can find a way to mesh with the intense singing and instrumentation to make something more palatable and lasting than four minutes of silence.

Concert Review: St. Vincent

By Michael Papich

A St. Vincent concert. The excitement and tension was palpable and everyone was looking forward to what the show had to offer. Typically, people are at least bemused before a concert begins because, hey, live music, but this was an uncommon energy. Annie Clark has a reputation as a performer and that reputation had clearly spread here.

But before the audience could see St. Vincent and find out if the rumors were true, there was the opening act: Noveller. First, it’s important to talk about the set-change music that was playing at the Haw River Ballroom. Without claiming to be some sort of human Shazam, the music sounded more-or-less like Tim Hecker or an equivalent dark, ambient artist. And that’s essentially how Noveller sounded. Weird coincidence.

That’s not a knock against Noveller at all, mind you. Using mainly just her electric guitar and looping pedals, Sarah Lipstate generated a dark and beautiful soundscape that hung over the room like a curse. Within the tones, she added in technical guitar playing that had a Kaki King-like grace to them. The whole performance was a nice, artsy start to the night.

Not long after Noveller, we got to the main attraction: St. Vincent. Her stage set-up was basically the same as it was for her tour to promote her last album, Strange Mercy. One drummer, two keyboardists, and Clark at the front with her war-worn electric guitar. The set also featured a white ziggurat-like structure in the back, which will come into play later. And when the concert started off with “Rattlesnake,” it was clear what people meant when they say St. Vincent is a very performance-drive concert.

Throughout the show, Clark, and often her other keyboardists as well, would do these odd…dances, I guess you would call them? Lots of jerky, repeated movements that made no real sense and were done in a mechanical way. This made sense more in the context of her latest self-titled album, which is largely about themes of alienation and disconnect in the “digital age.” While most of these weird robot moves felt more odd than anything, it did allow for some very cool moments when Clark would quick-step around stage while playing her guitar, like she was on a conveyor belt or she had those R2-D2 tread legs.

But the music! The music was great. St. Vincent drew mainly from the new album and Strange Mercy, but managed to throw in some highly souped-up versions of “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood” and “Your Lips Are Red,” among others. They even managed to throw in rarity “La Pièta.” These, and all songs St. Vincent played, put in a heavy beat with the electronic and analog drums and Clark played blistering solos that didn’t appear on the original versions of these songs. Even solos like those on “Cruel” and “Huey Newton” were given a shot in the arm by Clark

There was one notable exception, however. While most of the concert was devoted to St. Vincent adding additional life into her already busy songs, Clark appeared on stage alone to play “Strange Mercy,” only singing and playing guitar. The song is already sparse, but this version was breathtakingly gorgeous, especially when Clark went ahead and played the guitar bridge, which barely echoed out into the silence of the ballroom. Well, not total silence. Hey North Carolina audiences! When someone’s taking the time to use the quiet atmosphere to play a touching song, don’t sing along and don’t “sing-hum” the notes!

The performance of “Strange Mercy” brings the ziggurat into play. A few times, like then, Clark would stand on top to belt out her songs and shred her guitar while her band played around her, which made for a thrilling atmosphere. And, after playing “Cheerleader” on this weird white shrine, Clark scrunched her body up and slowly fell down the steps until she made it back to the front of the stage, like depression parkour. Clark also used the steps as a big seat that she moved around on like an old jazz singer on a piano in a 50s bar.

The concert had surprisingly few “human interactions,” as Clark always comes across as a pretty personable musician in interviews, but maybe seeing too many chatty artists has spoiled me. But, at a few intervals in the concert, Clark addressed the audience directly, saying she felt that we had a connection and proved this by telling us all “secrets” that we don’t tell anyone. Secrets like “we hate the nickname ‘Peaches’ our friends gave us,” or “we told a lie and then got sick so we built a throne to make up for it.”

The show seemed to go on forever and Clark played a dizzying number of songs, and while much of the concert was done under the guise of lots of “performance art,” the music itself was still played with mountains of genuine skill. St. Vincent features some of the best guitar playing in indie rock and that alone would have made the concert a night to remember.

Genre Retrospective: Witch House, or, w!†¢# #Ωu$e

By Michael Papich

“Seapunk is cool, but witch house is where…you know…it’s cool.”

–      Pictureplane, 2013 CE

Every new genre since about 2007 has come under heavy scrutiny. “Chillwave.” “Post-tone.” “Baroque.” But one genre has carved out one of the most distinguishable and heavily debated spaces in the past years.

Witch house.

And there is no better time than now to lay out, in hard words, what is witch house. That essential aspect to the timing comes on the heels of one of the most publicized album debuts that comes with the genre designation “witch house.” The self-titled debut by †††. I should say this designation is self-given because this is not a witch house album, but let’s get into that later on.

Witch house, or drab as none but the worst call it, comes less from house music and actually draws, originally, from hip-hop instrumentals and remixes. The signature witch house is, as the name says, pretty dark and downshifted electronic music, with a focus on sharp, simple beats. If you listen to the beat on a good amount of commercial/mainstream hip-hop – Casino, Migos, even some Chief Keef songs – you’re going to hear some beats that sound pretty close to witch house actually.

Witch house mostly started with Salem, who actually did the rapping themselves on a number of their songs, but set a standard for dark, voice-altered electronic music. It wasn’t a very high standard, but it was there. From there, we get similar groups like oOoOO and White Ring at the onset of the sound: dreamy synthpop with a heavy emphasis on darkness and minor chords and drowned-out vocals.

From here on out, the witch house camp expands hugely, mostly to completely off the radar producers who make songs in seclusion and throw them up on any variety of websites. Hip-hop stopped being the template pretty quickly after moving away from Salem, and more emphasis was placed on creating bass and chilling sounds. CRIM3S floods the internet with soaring, ethereal sounds that echo around inside abandoned churches. Glass Teeth gives witch house an underlying unnerving atmosphere to permeate dance floors and †‡† become witch household names, spanning the genre in terms of tone and hitting it “big” with a heavy sample in a HEALTH song.

Let’s stop here and look at what’s going on in this new ††† album. First of all, this album is getting attention because ††† is lead by Deftones’ Chino Moreno and the band has a crazy name like †††. It should also be noted that for witch house, that’s a pretty tame name. We’ve got  †‡†. We’ve got oOoOO. We’ve got CVL† SH‡†.  We’ve got M△S▴C△RA. “†††” is child’s play by comparison.

But †††’s music is tame compared to any witch house band. “†elepa†hy” is almost a Chromeo track, but with an occasional gritty sound effect and a much worse singer. “Bermuda Locke†” gets a little close in creating a similar kind of tone at the beginning but throws in the most inappropriate instrumentals for a witch house”song. “†” does the same thing but throws in even kitschier synths before the vocals.

Everything not only screams “not witch house,” but it’s also a weird, rude attempt at being “witch house.” All of the “†s” in every song name is so lazy. It’s like when a band in a movie or sitcom has an obviously misspelled name, it’s supposed to be a caricature of a hair metal band. Same thing.

And Moreno seems very set on having the listener hear his vocals and hear his skill as a singer. Nothing could be further from the point of witch house. First of all, most songs either have no singer or are a remix of another singer while purposely manipulating their voice to an inhuman level. And those that do feature singing are tampered with heavily or blended into the music like another keyboard. ††† is definitely not doing that.

Witch house is also built on surprises. Taking the song in a direction someone didn’t expect. That can come from a number of ways. Making it actually scary. Making it surprisingly beautiful while using creepy sounds and minor tones. Putting in brutal drops. ††† plays it very, very safe.

It’s not as if “witch house” is some exclusive Internet club for kids who were too cool to be regular goths. Crystal Castles and Chelsea Wolfe’s last albums were both heavily influenced and reminiscent of witch house sounds. And witch house responds by remixing and sampling the hell out of Crystal Castles.

Witch house is, as it were, a real genre, and one that’s growing in popularity based on no empirical evidence. It has distinct sounds and elements that other genres and artists are only barely toying with. But with any cult sound, some lines need to be drawn and some education needs to be doled out. While †‡† isn’t going to come out any time soon to address the world on the merits and failings of witch house, hopefully this little blog post can bring  you closer to some answers.

Album Review: St. Vincent – St. Vincent

By Michael Papich

St. Vincent’s musical trajectory has been a fairly steady experiment in taking her starkest, prettiest sounds and merging them with her most metallic, jarring tendencies. On the latest, self-titled album, Annie Clark plays around with this experiment some more, switching the script a bit from her last, noisiest venture.

On St. Vincent’s last album, Strange Mercy, the make-up of the band changed from a baroquey grouping of wind players and other guitarists, bassists, and even violinists to intense keyboards, drums, and Clark herself. St. Vincent sticks with this formula even harder, limiting the types of sounds the keyboards produced last time around. St. Vincent is a much more closed-off album and doesn’t have many of the same soaring, airy moments of most of Clark’s work.

Now, the heavy and well-placed distortion that made Clark’s guitar playing so signature on previous albums permeates St. Vincent. “Rattlesnake,” the album’s opener, starts with a simple synth melody that’s slowly ground down throughout the course of the song. “Bring Me Your Loves” brings creepier sound modulation to Clark’s singing and throws in little static wrinkles throughout the tune. “Digital Witness” is filled with bizarre, hellish saxophones that give the song a surreal quality.

While that all sounds like the makings for a super-odd album, this might be the closest St. Vincent album to traditional, typical rock music. Take away the guitar’s distortion on “Regret” and it’s easy to imagine any skilled band playing it. “Psychopath” has a traditional kind of melody and rhythm too, with a heavy Berlin-era David Bowie influence. Even “Birth in Reverse” has a quick-stepping guitar chorus which none of Clark’s previous albums even seemed to aim for.

On top of that, Clark still plugs in her characteristic sounds in unexpected places. “Huey Newton” starts off fairly dull until it shifts into blistering, headstrong guitar. “Bring Me Your Loves” is a jerky electro-rock song, but Clark still manages to get in her rising acapella vocals. “Prince Johnny” changes its heading pretty quickly into the song, balancing out all of St. Vincent’s best attributes: cooing vocals, drum-like guitar, and airy synths.

The album has its duller spots, with songs like “I Prefer Your Love” and “Severed Fingers Crossed” not offering much apart from Clark’s vocals. Slow songs like this have appeared on other St. Vincent albums. In fact, they’re typically a large part of the albums, but they’re matched with the appropriate instrumentals. Here, it’s just uninspired filler, unfortunately.

If St. Vincent’s best tracks hadn’t been released as singles ahead of time, maybe this album would have had more of an immediate impact, but for now it feels very within the expectations of Clark, after three albums and one super shocking collaboration with David Byrne. There’s plenty of good on here but the envelope isn’t pushed much beyond the few standout tracks. She’s proven through her solo career that her best music comes from mashing up beauty and ugliness and this album needed more ugliness. But I’m going to see her live in a few weeks so Clark will have plenty of ugly to draw from.

Album Review: Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom

By Michael Papich

There are lots of artists who make gritty, dark pieces of work for the sake of weirdness – the Bukowskis and Lars Von Triers of the world. And with this new album, it is hard to tell if Xiu Xiu avoids falling into that category anymore.

The easiest way to start talking about Xiu Xiu’s latest album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, is to look at where Xiu Xiu was with their previous non-Nina release, Always. That album introduced a dancey, nearly mainstream (mainstream being a very subjective term) sound into Xiu Xiu, while still sticking to Jamie Stewart’s gasping vocals and gruesome lyrics.

Angel Guts is staying in that lane in a bizarre way by going to electronic music’s dark roots. The Suicide influence is pretty heavy and there’s barely any instrumentation that sounds like it doesn’t come from a keyboard or a drum pad. Even Always played with acoustic guitar. But Angel Guts is all electronics, and sludgy, difficult electronics at that.

Any dance element Always had is drowned in other sounds here. The majority of the tracks here are ambient droning with typical Stewart hushed singing and simple drums, with some keyboard chords thrown in every now and then. The rest is pre-programmed samba drums with Stewart doing his distorted yelling of the lyrics.

There are plenty of nice surprises, like “Stupid in the Dark,” which allows for a consistent beat to carry on along with creepy synths and some clearer and more varied singing from Stewart. “Cinthya’s Unisex” feels like a haunted house ride, and this is a compliment. The tiny tapping drum and in-and-out pulse are thrillingly odd and Stewart’s quick shouts have a great weak-willed punk vibe. And “Black Dick” includes what sounds like live drums to create a neat, rocking vehicle, complete with dark synths and Stewart’s consistent lyrical delivery creates a rhythm of its own.

Of course, the lyrics on “Black Dick” segue nicely into that whole side of the album as well. Most of the song is Stewart repeating over and over again, you guessed it, “black dick.” But this is no more on the nose than “I Luv Abortion!” or “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)” In fact, “Black Dick” has more clever lyrics than either song, where Stewart sings a description of sado-masochistic sex, using the line, “One nipple/A volcano on fire/The other nipple/Baking soda.”

Stewart is still a master of strong imagery in lyrics that sticks with you. Take your pick with any song on the album: “Cinthya’s Unisex” with “Whimpered compliments coming through the keyhole/Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” “New Life Immigration” with “What is it about life that you think is special?/When I see you I see one life that is special.”

But there are just as many lyrics that feel overly hokey. A line like “You adjust your breasts to a more tasteful size D/When I touch them, it is like a lobster crawling under my arm” on “Adult Friends” feels less like an experimental music pioneer and more like a kid at an open mic night reading his gross-out short story.

Really, most of the lyrics are lost in the muddy synths and drones of the album. That’s one of the real shames of Angel Guts: Red Classroom. The starting beats on many of these songs, like “The Silver Platter” for example, are actually darkly compelling, but are utterly lost in the purposely dissonant sounds Xiu Xiu throws in. The more one listens to Angel Guts, more nuance appears, like the gradual wind-down of the keyboards on “Adult Friends” and the way the wall of sound lets Stewart’s screams reverberate on “Lawrence Liquors.”

But unfortunately, for every “Stupid in the Dark” on this album, there’s an “El Naco” to balance it out with nonsense. Combine that with the hard emphasis on “dirty sex” that permeates the lyrics, the obnoxious drone tracks that start and end the album, and Stewart’s telling that the inspiration for the album came from moving to crime-riddled parts of L.A. where he lived in a building with dead bodies and Angel Guts feels a little exhausting. There’s plenty of good and it slowly grows on the listener, but it’s not one of Xiu Xiu’s best albums. But maybe we’re still bitter over Stewart calling this the first full album he made since leaving North Carolina.

Who’s Going To Win All The Grammys?

 

 

So the 2014 Grammys just happened and if you’re a horrid, unbearable indie kid like us, you either didn’t notice or are steaming with rage that it even happened. That’s weird, right? This blog entry is rooted in the thesis that that’s weird, so amend your contradictory mindset.

People who watch a lot of TV don’t seem all that upset when the Emmys roll around. Movie fans always seem pretty excited when the Oscars come to town. And when the Tonys are on, I’m not sure what happens. Theatre people get exhausting quickly and it’s hard to gauge whether they like or care about the Tonys at all. But it always seems like a fun affair.

Whoopi Goldberg, one of the few people to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar. Seen here using the mafuba on King Piccolo.
Whoopi Goldberg, one of the few people to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar. Seen here using the mafuba on King Piccolo.

But not so with the Grammys. Now why is that? Are the artists and groups recognized undeserving or uninteresting? Are individuals nominated and awarded based on ridiculous and unrealistic standards of talents and musicality?

Yes, that sounds about right. The same dull pop people are nominated for the same awards and perform the same songs every year. And the “rock” category is always laughably weird and outdated. This year’s nominees for best “rock” album include Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin (for a recording of a benefit concert from 2007), and Kings of Leon. I’m leaving out David Bowie, Neil Young, and Queens of the Stone Age because I still respect them, but still, that’s 60 percent artists from the 70s. Are there really no other rock bands?

This shouldn’t just be a rant about the Grammys, however. Let’s think about this. There’s lotsa lousy music that’s popular. But the same is true of movies. The Academy Awards would likely be received much differently if Grown Ups 2 were nominated alongside 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Especially if Grown Ups 2 also won.

So are the Oscars and Emmys and Tonys more nuanced than the Grammys, and that’s the source of their relative praise? That’s a hard case to make. Look at how many categories the Grammys have. “Best Regional Roots Music Album.” “Best Jazz Ensemble Album” and “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.” “Best Comedy Album.”  These maniacs even have an award for “Best Album Notes.” This isn’t a pass for the Grammys, though. The nominee list for “Best Comedy Album” is especially sad.

Without award shows, this picture would not exist.
Without award shows, this picture would not exist.

There’s also the Polaris and Mercury Prize to nitpick over.  Are the “indier” music award shows any better? Well, maybe. Any list of “best album” nominees that includes Jon Hopkins or Metz is probably in pretty good shape. But really, is this any better? Is having music compete within itself a damaging concept? The beard boys over at Godspeed! You Black Emperor seem to think so after they won their Polaris Prize. Maybe they shouldn’t have been cleared of terrorism charges after all.

But what benefits can even a horrendous music blog-reading, college radio-listening ruffian get from the Grammys? Well, without it, we wouldn’t know about most pop music, I imagine. Without it, who among us would know there’s a musician named “Sara Bareilles” or that she’s apparently well-liked? Or that it takes five people to write a Katy Perry song? Or that Bruno Mars is a very short man?

So are we any closer to answering the question of whether the Grammys are really any worse than another award show? Eh, probably not. Still seems like it’s a pile of garbage. But all award shows are pretty bad, and even pretentious seapunks can watch some fun performances by some legitimately talented artists like Janelle Monaé and Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar and others and learn what’s going on in the world of pop music. So good luck to the deserving artists and performers who are nominated, let’s forget about the different tiers of irony and enjoy the-

 

Never mind. Throw the Grammys in the dang trash.

Album Retrospective: Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

dragonslayer

By Michael Papich

Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer came out five years ago this summer, and a typical music site or an ordinary fan might take the opportunity to reminisce about the album’s merits. How it merged Spencer Krug’s experimental style with a more palatable pop-rock sound for a smoother experience. How it paints a more cohesive and present picture lyrically than any of the bands past releases. How it ended up being the band’s last album, thus allowing for a look back on Sunset Rubdown’s work.

But this is no ordinary music site and I am no typical fan. Instead, it’s much more important to talk about how Dragonslayer secretly tells one long story about a man’s life, death, and subsequent travel through the afterlife to find a way to come back to the land of the living. Is this crazy? Is this looking too deeply into things? Let’s find out. It can’t be any more improbable than Radiohead’s Kid A predicting 9/11.

The album starts with “Silver Moons.” A pretty, soft tune about accepting that past memories cannot be relived and that the time comes to give certain things up. We get lines like “I think maybe these days are over, over now/I believe in growing old with grace/I believe she only loved my face.” But in the context of the theory, imagine these lines being said from the perspective of a dying person. Yes, the album starts at the initial death of our hero. All of “Silver Moons” seems to point to this. The lines even point to some sort of overlying community or quest, with Krug singing “I’m passing the baton from the old mare to the fawn/It was out of line but it was fun/Didn’t you love the part right before the dawn?”

What was the quest? Let’s take a stab in the dark and say it was a quest to slay a dragon. The hero seems to have previous experience with such quests before his death, as he notes “There were parties here in my honor/til you sent me away.” The presence of a dragon itself is noted in later songs as well, but in “Silver Moons,” Krug says, “Gone are the days bonfires make me think of you/Looks like the prophecy came true.” Dragons breathe fire, people. And our hero was likely not alone in the slaughter, as he follows these lines by surveying his surroundings with, “You are a fallen tree, he is a fallen tree/How old are you, no, how old are you?”

Directly after “Silver Moons” is “Idiot Heart,” a more fanciful song that is also about reminiscing about one’s life and experiences, with the same sense of regret and apology that hung over “Silver Moons.” At a surface level, “Idiot Heart” reminisces about death, with the ending line repeated over and over again: “I hope that you die in a decent pair of shoes/You’ve got a lot more walking to do where you’re going to.” This would point to an afterlife and the protagonist noting that there is more after one dies. But going further, the song starts with repeated messages and directions. “No, I was never much of a dancer/But I know enough to know you’ve got to move/Your idiot body around” and “You can’t, can’t settle down/until the Icarus in your blood/in your blood drowns.” Both of these could be seen as the rules for existing after death. The first is a basic push to be conscious and the second is to be calm and accept one’s fate as a deadman and not be foolhearty.

The song flows in a slow direction that would seem to point to this. The directions come at the beginning and our hero also says that “If I found you in this city and called it Paradise/I say I love you but I hate this city and I’m no prize.” Krug’s character is resisting being death, clinging to the memories of someone else – likely the same person he apologized to in “Silver Moons.” Then, as the song speeds up significantly, we hear “look at you go!/Oh look at you go!” The protagonist has accepted death and enters into some sort of magnificent afterlife existence, which leads him to end the song with the lines about having a long way to go after dying.

Not so crazy now, is it? Yeah, yeah, let’s keep that suspension of disbelief going because up next is “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” Here is where the story of our hero gets considerable depth. For, as the album’s conclusion tells us, he escapes death, and the rest of the albums reminds up repeatedly of difficult and powerful memories in his past. He sings, “My God, I miss the way we used to be/So here’s a photograph for you to hold/It’s my picture right before I got old.” The protagonist’s relationship seems to be more than just fleeting love for the person in question, whom the song suggests is the Greek goddess Artemis.

Our hero’s emotions reach a high, mythical level, as he asks “Will we ever find out way into Cassandra’s gaze again?” and “Where have you been, Erato?” Cassandra was a mythical Greek prophecy-maker and Erato is the Greek muse of romantic poetry, so Krug’s song suggests that the relationship between the two crumbled apart as the hero cries out for these imposing figures to try and put it back together again.

The album follows a mixed timeline from this point on, as some songs, like “Apollo,” show our protagonist’s memories flooding back, while others show him continuing his journey through the dead, now angling for a way back to the world of the living. This is where Black Swan comes in on the album. “Black Swan” is a much darker and feverish song and is further from any pop sensibilities than anything on Dragonslayer. This could represent a deeper level of the afterlife for our hero as the song repeatedly talks about a palace and a kingdom, as well as a king and queen.

Is the hero consulting the leaders of the Paradise city of the dead for a way to escape? Does the fact that I’ve listened to this album eight times in a row with no REM sleep contribute anything to this theory? Whoooo let’s keep going!

The force present in this song seems to be quite powerful and have something to do with the dead, as it taunts the hero about his own fears about the supernatural, saying, “There was a rumor of a ghost in the bedroom/Hanging in and around the bed/But by the time the moon rose, you had taken off your clothes/And had the pillow under your head.” Later on, the force tells a brief story that can relate to the hero himself, saying, “There was the matador who said he would have you/If you could only give it up and walk away.” The force, or the king of the dead, whatever it is, says that the matador had his accomplishments, like the hero, who killed dragons and other beasts instead of bulls. But the force goes on to say, “And now it’s half destroyed/And you are half destroyed/I see you running down a washed out road/I see you running between the dream and the void.”

A warning: the ruin that faced that bull killer is now being faced by the dragon slayer and he is trying to tackle a “dream” of returning to life and possibly making up with those in his life and “the void.” And given that our hero is already dead, there is little mystery around “the void.” And like the directions our hero receives in “Idiot Heart,” in “Black Swan” he is advised that “My heart is a kingdom/Where the king is a heart/And my heart is king.”

Up next is another song mixing memories with the journey through death, “Paper Lace.” He hears that, “She will be tired/But she’ll be glad/When you go back/To your good home.” A positive sentiment, but as the song goes on, the reality of our hero’s relationship with Artemis or whoever he is seeking becomes more cloudy. Krug sings,” And when she’s done dancing with everyone/She will go back to your good home/She will be tired from loving everyone/But she’ll be glad that you’re back home.” While our hero was both out of her life and dead, whoever he was with has had her own life with her own relationships.

But the song goes even further, showing that much of the blame goes on the dragon slayer for his obsession with quests, as “There’s nothing left inside the room you’ve filled/With lion skins and laurels.” The problems might be more emotional and structural in nature as well, as Krug sings, “There was no way you could have known/About the things she didn’t know she couldn’t trust.”

At this point I question whether I’m in reality or in this strange land between worlds the hero is in. This is taking a lot out of me. I should go to sleep. Is this why Spencer Krug’s other albums are just about his friends that broke up with one another? I need to put on a nice, sturdy pair of shoes in case I don’t make it through the rest of this ramble.

Now the album’s journey takes a turn with “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II).” Here, the hero seems to both accept that his time with those in his previous life are over and see that he has unrealistic expectations and goals – expectations and goals he still wants to come true. That goal is a return to life, which he pushes for in this song. He wants Artemis or whoever to “go on ahead” while also saying “I’d like to watch the white flash of your heels/As they take turns breaking the desert heat/To beckon me in languages I’ve never learned.” He has hopes that they can both go forward too, wishing that “On the way decide what mendings of your will/You’re willing to forgive.”

The second half of the songs kicks up considerably and our protagonist’s hopes soar and he targets his own personal hopes to come back to life, singing, “See the sirens and the lizards lick their tongues behind the stage/See the actor keep a ritual to keep them all at bay/He would like to come home naked without war paint on his face.” Dragons are lizards, people. Warpaint, quest, dragon, dragonslayer, album, sleep, NASA, holographic principle, okay! Back to the piece.

Now we have our hero’s actual return to the land of the living. Like how Idiot Heart documented his descent, so does “Nightingale/December Song” illustrate his ascension. The song’s overall melody is graceful and lifting and Krug sings about his relationship to another person, likely the protagonist’s special person who appears throughout the album, in an epiloguic sense. That’s not a real word, but Shakespeare made up plenty of words. Let’s talk about the eerie similarities between Richard III and the presidency of Gerald Ford.

Okay, focus and get through this. So in “Nightingale/December Song,” he tells her, “You are too hot for me/I am too slow for you/You are a fast explosion and I’m the embers/You need the one who slowly burns, and burns to stay alive.” While the hero was blinded by his constant quests, he now understands that he needed to be more grounded to the world and to reality. He also talks about fire the entire song, like in Silver Moons, and on the album’s last song “Dragon’s Lair,” he talks about the sun. I’m jumping ahead a bit, but stay with me. It’s also worthwhile to note that Apollo is associated with the sun and Artemis is associated with the moon.

Alright, let’s get right to the last song. “Dragon’s Lair” shows the hero now back and alive, while also giving some overviews of his life before being killed by the dragon. The very first lines of the song harken back to “Silver Moons,” where he gets killed. “I’m sorry that I’m late/I went blind/I got confetti in my eyes/I was held up at yesterday’s parties/I was needed in the congo line.” Silver Moons opens with “Confetti floats away like dead leaves in the wagon’s wake,” and later on he tells the woman in question “Over are the days where the congas make your hair.”

There’s a fair amount of symbolism here that fits in nicely to the story’s plot. The “lateness” is being a disembodied spirit in the land of the dead. “Confetti” was there when the hero died, so whether it’s actual celebrations or a misinterpretation of flailing innards, who’s to say? “Yesterday’s parties” could be either the gathering of the dead or the quest itself. And all the conga/congo stuff is just…they’re in both songs. Are you with me or against me?

Wow, “Dragon’s Lair” is rife with evidence for this theory. Maybe I’m not going insane after all. Or I’m so far gone that I’m believing my own lies. The song goes on to say, “I’d like to fight the good fight for another couple of years/’Cause to say the war is over is to say you are a widow/You’re not a widow yet.” He is saying that he’s not dead, folks.

Up next we’ve got more for the whole Artemis theory, with the protagonist noting that “This one’s for the critics and their disappointed mothers/For the cupid and the hunter/Shooting arrows at each other.” Artemis was a hunter herself and notably a bow user as well.

But as the song goes on, it seems that our hero wants to continue working to kill the dragon. And the song makes it pretty clear that he was trying to kill a dragon, especially given this whole stanza: “If you are sharpening your scissors,
I am sharpening my scissors/And I am sharpening my sword/So you can take me to the dragon’s lair/Or you can take me to Rapunzel’s windowsill/Either way it is time for a bigger kind of kill.”

Why? Well this guy seems to kill a lot of monsters anyway so he might just be a maniac. But he also mentions that his journeys, both in the world of the living and possibly in the world of the dead have given him an insight into the potential that the dragon can bring to the world, saying “I have seen into the wasteland/Oh, the future/Oh, the future of us all/Of dead, dead leaves last fall.” In Silver Moons, he compares the confetti to dead leaves, and if the confetti is actually viscous insides, then boy, that future sounds pretty bad.

So there we go. There’s a lot of common imagery between songs, the storyline works out pretty well, and we had fun learning. But don’t just take my word for it. Take my word for it and listen to the album yourselves.

Album Review: M.I.A. – Matangi

MIA-MATANGI

By Michael Papich

The new Arcade Fire album is a weird, patoisy disappointment! Let’s talk about a surprisingly great album instead!

 

Namely, M.I.A.’s new album, Matangi. It’s quality isn’t surprising because M.I.A. has a reputation as a bad artist. Her breakthrough album, Kala, and the globe-ensnaring song that came from it, “Paper Planes,” threw pop music into disarray. It had ambitious production, instrumentation that borrowed from styles few underground artists even used, and had political lyrics that brought up issues out of the periphery of many British listeners and definitely most Americans.

 

But then her next album, Maya, wasn’t…all that interesting and M.I.A. quickly got wrapped up in a lot of controversy that ended up eclipsing any music she was trying to promote.

 

Now, with Matangi, M.I.A. is throwing another fantastic album into a chaotic year marked by all kinds of surprising albums. From the first two tracks, “Karmageddon” and the title track, Matangi sets a consistent theme of more intense, house-influenced production with quicker, wittier rapping. M.I.A.’s lyricism is more sarcastic and shade-throwing than her previous, knife-to-the-gut style of spitting. Take “Y.A.L.A.,” which matches her clever, boasting lyrics with a sticky, mocking tone. Instead of trying to flat-out cut down listeners, on this album, she is slyly putting enemies in their place.

 

To summarize the production on Matangi, the best way may be to say it was what everyone wanted from the new Major Lazer album. It is a pumped up, at times dubstep influenced, house music hip-hop album. But, it also incorporates the South-East Asian instrumentation M.I.A. is famous for in serious ways that actually contribute to the songs. On Major Lazer’s Free the Universe, house music was sloppily mixed with reggae and dub to create a pandering mess. Of course, Major Lazer’s Switch and Diplo gave plenty of production help to M.I.A.’s Kala and Switch still gave production to almost half of Matangi, so the influence might still be lingering. But on Matangi, M.I.A. still completely blew Major Lazer out of the water.

 

M.I.A. even does reggae-house better than Major Lazer on Matangi, with “Double Bubble Trouble” bringing all of the rhythm and relaxation as a slow drive through an idealized vacation movie set.  Most of Matangi actually has fairly easy to trace musical influences. “aTENTion” (with production help from Julian Assange?) and “Y.A.L.A.” both use British dubstep and electro-rock respectively to a great degree. “Only 1 U” and “Warriors” sound like they’re influenced by the new forays into glitchy, electronic hip-hop used by American artists. And that’s not even touching on the massive house music sound permeating the entire album.

 

The main complaint with Matangi is, weirdly, the presence of “Bad Girls.” Somehow, the reemergence of this song that’s been out for almost two years disrupts the listening experience. And “Bad Girls” isn’t a bad song, but it feels out of place in the fresh Matangi. The production doesn’t fit with the rest of the album either.

 

Matangi serves as a cool, engaging listening experience with no true drop-off of bad area of the album…except for maybe “Know It Ain’t Right.” The production is powerful and textured and M.I.A.’s rapping is as unique as ever. After all the controversy and the disappointment of Maya, M.I.A.’s new album puts her back into the musical discussion strongly and proudly.

Album Review: Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On

Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

By Michael Papich

Spencer Krug has hung up his warlock hat for over three years now, and with that, a surprising array of musical experiments have come forward. The incredibly lush instrumentation of Sunset Rubdown and the focused, rhythmic electro-rock of Wolf Parade brought out a totally new beast in Krug’s current solo effort, Moonface. Earlier Moonface releases saw a bizarre approach to minimalism, with strange electric organs humming on and on while Krug crooned with his signature esoteric lyricism. Then, Moonface’s next big release, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery, took another side-step, with Krug partnering with a more traditional rock band and putting out an album that was, in many ways, more conventional than even a Wolf Parade release.

 

Now, on Julia With Blue Jeans On, Krug is taking another out-of-left-field approach, this one possibly his most severe: Krug is foregoing everything in favor of just a piano and his voice. As largely unexplored territory (the piano Sunset Rubdown track “Us Ones In Between” still featured smatterings of keyboard, guitar, and drums), it was unclear how well Krug would be able to pull this experiment off.

 

Happily, Julia is an impressive musical adventure. Stylistically, it is a much different experience than other Krug-affiliated albums. Julia is probably his most passive album. The musical medium Krug is using lends itself to the imagery of a man hammering away at a piano and singing loudly to himself on the city streets. Which is not to say that Krug is a plain or blunt pianist. His pieces are all immaculately played and still eccentrically arraigned. “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” closes with a quick, expectation diverting flourish of ivory. Much like Krug’s own voice, which easily evokes a wide range of his emotions, the piano on Julia traverses the album’s tones near-effortlessly. The title track is a gradual and well-chiseled build to a grand head. “Barbarian II” begins with crude, avant-garde composition that slowly dissolves into glistening, gentle chords. Not all of the pieces are athletic shows of piano mastery. “Black is Back in Style” is a typical kind of barroom piano tune of loss and personal history.

 

Julia’s main fault, however, is in its lyrics. It’s not that the lyrics are bad, per say. The main issue is that the piano and lyrics sound like they are mixed together, making it difficult to always hear Krug over his playing. And perhaps more listens are needed, but classic, mysterious Krug lines are not jumping out as easily as “You should have been a writer/You should have played guitar/But your face looks like a statue in the dark” did on “Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor” from Moonface’s first full-length release, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped. Still, Julia has great spots when it is understandable, like “Everyone will end up talking to the sky/Or looking the elephant in the eye” on the metaphor-thick “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” and “Let me take you like a lamb/To the slaughterer with a knife” on “November 2011.”

 

Moonface has been one of Krug’s biggest musical laboratories and Julia With Blue Jeans On is another big step and big success on Krug’s part. The album is surprisingly intricate for such a limited medium and new facets come to light with each listen. Julia is also a much more accessible album for listeners who may not be able to palate Krug’s other, instrumentally eccentric releases. In whole, an intriguing listen, especially for Spencer Krug fans, but likely for music fans of many stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

David Bowie: A Catalog Assessment

David Bowie is one of the most widely known rock musicians in the canon and has had a major hand in popular music since the early 70s. And yet, nearly everyone you typically talk to about Bowie’s music will only have a few words to say about him. Whether it’s rock-heads who say that Ziggy Stardust is one of the best albums to 80s babies who like to sing along to “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” to hipsters who can’t be restrained in their adoration of albums like Low or Station to Station.

But with a catalog as long, diverse, and plainly good as David Bowie’s, these quick, focused adorations do not do it service. So, let’s do our best to set the record on Bowie’s career with an overview of the man’s career over the last third of the 20th Century.

 

images

 

Self-Titled Album: Your Dad’s Hilarious Prom Photo

 Every true Bowie fan will, at one point, get curious about that very first album he put out and want to see where it all began. This may or may not be a good idea, depending on your perspective. What you get is a full album of bizarre, British-invasion pop music. Very flowery, very cheeky, and of course, very cheesy. But, it’s hard to call these songs “bad.” In the way that many early Beatles albums are cheesy but still somewhat beloved, the titular Bowie album works in such a way. Songs like “Rubber Band” and “She’s Got Medals” are enjoyable and I’ve still got friends who love to bring out “The Laughing Gnome” and giggle along to the ridiculous tune. In general, the self-titled album can be a fun look at where such a massive artist began, especially if you snicker “oh no” through a clenched smile.

 

Hunky Dory: The Most Underrated Overrated Album

 Hunky Dory is a great album. It really is. And it doesn’t get much of the attention it deserves in Bowie’s catalog. But it also has several flaws that need to be addressed immediately. First and foremost, “Changes” is a horrible song and its popularity is baffling. Hunky Dory has many good spots, but there are plenty of pretty cheesy songs. If the self-titled album was Bowie’s Beatles for Sale, Hunky Dory is his Revolver. Some goofy bits, but the clear beginning of great music. “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Queen Bitch” push Bowie into his more lyrical direction and start to show the stripped down instrumentation that would follow into his next few albums. And he still remained experimental with odd songs like “Quicksand” and “Andy Warhol.” It is certainly not as sophisticated as many fans claim, but it was a clear, strong step in the right direction.

 

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the rest of the long album name

Yes, the one people usually know! I prefaced this article half-complaining that less savvy Bowie fans usually point to this as his best album, but…they’re kind of right. Ziggy Stardust is one of his most consistent and interesting albums. The concept is relatively easy to follow, the hard-rocking parts flow in and out in a way that makes sense, his lyricism is in display throughout nearly every track. The quality of every song is hard to argue. And here, we see the beginning of the “funky” Bowie sound that’s so present throughout his career. “Hold On To Yourself” and “Suffragette City” have a magical rhythm about them and tracks like “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust” have this inherent motion about them. And that’s not to underscore lesser-known songs. “Soul Love” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are some of Bowie’s most gorgeous songs and “Star” a consistently overlooked great, weird rock tune. As an album, Ziggy Stardust serves as a sterling flagship in Bowie’s career.

 

Diamond Dogs: The Real Best Album?

Imagine an album with all of the hard-rocking elements of Ziggy Stardust, but then carried over throughout an entire album. That’s Diamond Dogs. The title track is an anthemic, grimy rock track, “1984” is a perfect example of what disco got right, and “Big Brother” is a darkly poetic song that’s hard to pin down. And, of course, everyone gets a little excited when the guitar melody to “Rebel Rebel” first comes in. Diamond Dogs also shows the beginnings of Bowie’s most experimental composing, with the “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” medley, which serves as a long, perfect mix of minimalism and maximalism in Bowie’s composition.  Bowie fans would be remiss to overlook the entirety of the Diamond Dogs album, which it unfortunately seems to usually be.

 

Station to Station: The Easiest Listen

Station to Station is the second big shift in Bowie’s catalog, Hunky Dory being the first. From the opening title track, he gives us a 10-minute song with a lengthy, bizarre, soundboard beginning. The rest of the song is one of his strangest lyrically and it relies on even more jazz sounds than the previous, lackluster Young Americans album had. And, of course, it’s all-amazing; truly one of his best songs. The rest of the album is a little less bombastic, but the heavier reliance on funk sounds and a sharp turn away from rock music is still prevalent. “Wild is the Wind” is almost an R&B song and when the little drum fills come in, it can take your breath away. Songs like “Word on a Wing” and “Golden Years” are kind of corny, but that’s balanced by the ambitious, funky “Stay” and the truly bizarre “TVC 15.” Station to Station is a relatively short album, dominated by its opening title track but contains numerous other songs that don’t slouch.

 

Low and “Heroes”: The Inseparable Duo

Ah, the “cool” albums. Part of the “Berlin” trio that saw heavy involvement by Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti. But the last part of the trio, Lodger, isn’t too note-worthy. But Low and “Heroes” live up to their hype…somewhat. Low especially heralds a lot of ambient music and the album’s second side sounds like something made by Daniel Lopatin. “Heroes” has its own ambient sections, but its incorporated more with rock and especially jazz so it has a more specific “Bowie” sound. And both albums have plenty of engaging funk and rock songs as well. “Breaking Glass” is a cool little song and “Be My Wife” is a perfect example of minimalist rock music. “Heroes’” first half is filled with amazing rock songs, like the title track of course, but songs like “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” are absolute bangers. And “The Secret Life of Arabia” is an addictively rhythmic hidden gem at the end of the album. Low and “Heroes” are both great albums, but in both cases, especially Low, they may not live up the high lauds it gets from some sections of music fans, depending on your love for ambient music.

 

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): The All-Over-The-Place Album

 Scary Monsters is a difficult album to pigeonhole, which is definitely not a bad thing. But this album hit the highs in each of Bowie’s styles of music. The title track is one of his most bombastic rock songs, “Ashes to Ashes” is his most screwed-up weirdo tracks, and “Fashion” steps up the tongue-in-cheek disco music to amazing, hilarious extents. He also takes more odd steps with the opening and closing songs and in “Scream Like A Baby,” which sounds like a mix of Bowie’s earlier, concept-album era and the grimier sounds he started to move toward on this album. Overall, Scary Monsters is a return to Bowie’s rock sound and a showcase of how the genre has changed over active 70s.

 

Let’s Dance: The Embarrassingly Good Album

 It would be the easiest step in the world to just skip this album altogether. Although Bowie hit some of his biggest popularity heights in the 80s, his real impact on music dropped off pretty sharply at this point. And most people know the songs on the album as his real “pop” songs, so there’s not a lot to say. But here’s the thing: the reason everyone knows the songs from this album is because they’re great. “China Girl,” “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” “Cat People.” They’re all here and they’re all amazing. “Let’s Dance” has an undeniable groove that can really move people to dance. “China Girl” is a shifting, difficult pop song and the Iggy Pop version should definitely be listened to as well. “Modern Love” is cheesy, sure, but it is engaging and has dazzling, coke-fueled saxophone. Let’s Dance as an album can be easy to put down and overlook, but its impact is undeniable and a revisitation can be eye-opening.

 

Outside and Earthling: Please Hear Me Out

Everyone loves to rag on 90s Bowie. And it makes sense. He tried to do the whole Tin Machine experiment, which crashed and burned, and he put out some of his most embarrassing albums. But Outside and Earthling were the decades’ two big works he put out and they’ve been debated healthily by critics. But Outside has some impressive songs, like the exciting “Hallo Spaceboy” and the creepy, anthemic “Voyeur of Utter Destruction.” Outside is often put down as an imitation of “industrial” music, but the only band that ever seems to apply to is Nine Inch Nails. And sure, the album kind of sounds like NiN, but it still carries Bowie’s iconic voice and his little flourishes of eccentric arrangement. Earthling, the “electronic” Bowie album is a harder case to sell. I…I like it, I dunno. Just try it even though it’s really not defendable.

 

The Next Day: It’s Not Bad

 The rest of Bowie’s career was pretty rocky. Heathen, in the early-2000s is not a bad album, but it’s hard to really write about. But after a long hiatus that everyone assumed would be a permanent stop in music, Bowie announced The Next Day and it was not just a cheap cash-grab album. It was a real attempt at a return to music and a last note of what Bowie has to give. So, since this will likely be his last album, it’s important to look at what The Next Day has. And it’s just…hard to really summarize. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s just rock music. Some tracks are easier to see Bowie’s earlier styles, like “Dirty Boys” has some of the Scary Monsters-era grime and the best song, “Set the World on Fire,” is a return to the same uniquely-arraigned rock music that was seen on “Diamond Dogs.” But overall, The Next Day is a bit of a sad final note. This is how the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.