Monday, July 28, 2008

Swell Maps - Jane in Occupied Europe

Here is my abridged review of this amazing experimental pop record. It won't win any awards, but I simply wrote it while listening, so the whole thing only took me about forty five minutes. Allmusic has a two sentence review. I'm pretty sure I have more than two sentences. Point being, I hope someone stumbles onto this while looking for reviews, and can actually read about how it sounds.

Robot Factory - cranking and whirring buzzes, and a ghostly organ drones away in the background, unsure if it accepts the clanging percussion. Epic enters on bass and snare, tight and crisp, as the chaos of the off-kilter percussion envelops him. About a minute later...

A huge bass and drum hook up leads into a messy, strange organ and vocal led romp, with Epic pounding out a nice-Beefheartian backwards drumbeat. Huge build-up leads to an amazing saxophone break played by Jowe Head. "Border Country" is a standard guitar-led track that wouldn't sound out of place on Nirvana's Bleach. Dissonant, but glaringly catchy. Intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental bridge-verse-chorus-out. You don't get a standard structure from Swell Maps too often, but they pull it off fantastically.

"Cake Shop Girl" is a guitar and synth-led track, rather catchy if not for Jowe Head's low, mumbled vocal. It sounds like it came out about five years too early, and the same could be applied to the rest of the record. One can see how Jowe hooked up with Television Personalities' Dan Treacy later on in their careers, what with the synth lead and pop sensibilities.

"Helicopter Skies" is a barn-stormer, the sound of guitars cranked up as loud as fucking possible. Another pretty standard song, but the insane volume, four on the floor beat, and the lead guitar creaking and swooping around the background create a song rife with tension. Always a fan of great outtros, the boys start to break down to quieter state as Epic plugs along on his crashes.

"Big Maz in the Desert" and "Big Empty Fields" are the true jumping off points in this record. Structure is abandoned for pulse and texture. The drums and bass in "Big Maz..." shutter along in a clumsy Krautrock groove, as the rest of the band seemingly leaves their guitars against their amps to feed back, pianos are bludgeoned, and percussion of course is thrown around the room. The bass drops out, the drums lighten up, and the boom! the bombast continues until you're in the fetal position with your headphones on. "Big Empty Fields," on the other hand, is crafted in chaotic subtlety. Again, a bass and drum hook-up pins the song down, while guitar harmonics and lonely sax create an alien landscape.

You know, I love crazy noise music. I do! But what follows the smooth and calculated improvisations is "Mining Villages," which is literally the sound of someone smashing typewriter keys while another person makes silly noises for about a minute. Stereo-damaging nonsense. Quintessential Swell Maps.

"Collision with a Frogman" is yet another drum/bass instrumental, with dissonant James Bond guitar fragmenting out until the song is bathed in flange and falls apart completely, revealing a new track "...Vs the Mangrove Delta Plan," an improvisation that comes deliriously close to boring the hell out of me.

"Secret Island" comes exactly when it's most needed. A classic rock/pop structure is a welcome respite from the noise hailstorms I've weathered, and the song is freaking great. Can't make out any of the lyrics, but that's never the point with the Maps.

"Whatever Happens Next" besides being the band's status quo, is a militant drone with thick gauzy fuzz guitar and group vocals. It's the sound of a band stuck in a loop, and the tension involved in that song is unmistakable.

If you want to know what it's like to ride a flaming chariot down Route 95 blind-folded, "Blenheim Shots" will take you there chariot-free. An absolutely blazing two-chord riff is pushed to the brink the moment the song begins, with Nikki Sudden's words stumbling and breaking over the verse, suddenly overtaken by a organ-led chorus, only to have the verse consume all before it.

I really like this song. I mean, Desert Island favorite style. The lyrics finish up, complete with Nikki saying, "OK, stop," as the song continues to blaze around him, but the musicians take no note. They build to furious climax, as a strange piano pattern starts to emerge out of the mix, eventually overtaking "Blenheim Shots." "A Raincoats Room" ends the album with stark beauty, the sound of 4 out-of tune pianos hammering out the same descending chord triads.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Raincoats - Ody Shape

It came about 3 days ago, and I've listened to it about ten times, so let's get down to the nitty gritty.

As a whole, the album is a beautiful mess, with three rules of structure musically speaking:

1. The music follows the words. As explained in the re-issue's liner notes, Gina Birch states they wrote most of the music in the absence of a drummer, so a metered beat occurs occasionally. In fact, most of the record abandons harmonic and rhythmic convention entirely, sometimes in the middle of a song. The effect is incredibly jarring. Unlike punk groups like The Clash, Sex Pistols, or even Wire, the band was wildly experimental. Birch again: "I think we always took punk philosophy very seriously and we rejected the traditional forms of rock music, that in fact most bands ultimately didn't reject." This is not sneering, sarcastic, clothespin and leather punk. This is music being ripped apart from the seams.

2. Instruments switch roles. The bass could be the lead instrument in a song. And then cello and violin. Suddenly a kalimba enters the fray. You get the picture.

3. Destroy all expectations. Listen freely and sit back, because this album is a fucking journey.

The album opens with the solemn "Shouting Out Loud," a bass-led piece that features This Heat's Charles Hayward playing a rickety percussion pattern auto-panned left to right with subtle interjections from an electric guitar and pizzicato violin. Although spare, the arrangement is rife with tension.The lyrics concern a wounded female contemplating her life/love. This will be a constant theme throughout.

"Family Treet" is as dense as they come on "Odyshape," with a mournful piano creating the harmonic boundaries. A bowed bass, violin, and breath-taking whispery vocals create a shimmering, constantly-shifting landscape, as the band moves from a plodding 4/4 to an antsy 5/4. The tempo shifts are chaotic, as some instruments shift before others, and melody lines seem to place emphasis more on texture than anything else.

My personal favorite "Only Loved at Night" follows, a song that respects a steady meter a little better than most. A shrill descending electric guitar line holds down the verse, with a glorious melody sung by Ana and harmonized by a huge bass guitar that almost over-takes the rest of the recording. It's when the chorus hits that I'm swept away. What sounds like a washboard and bells are struck in an eighth note pattern, as a lone kalimba picks out a stark melody. Ana intones, "Boys love her at night, girls love her in the dark," and goddamn I have to meet this girl.

"Dancing in My Head" is more free, as the instruments follow Gina's words concerning the battle between the spiritual and physical. Resembling a German lied, the song is a perversely "standard" tune compared to the rest of the lot. Former PIL drummer Richard Dudanski lends a hand on an assortment of percussion, a role he would eventually take as a full-time drummer on "Kitchen Tapes" and "Moving".

Another gem, "Odyshape," emerges in a cloud of digital delay. The dueling electric guitars and even Hayward's booming, clattering drums bounce and shimmer, as the women sing of the female image in modern culture, statements that still ring true.

I'm not glamorous
or polished in fact
I'm no ornament
it could be my bodyshape
I wonder if I'll ever look right

The guitar/drum combo sway back and forth, teetering on the brink, a microcosm of the album as a whole. Just an amazing song that pulls you in.

"And Then It's OK" and "Red Shoes" both rely on natural pulse and feel rather then conventional rhythm, with infamous experimentalist and Writemare favorite Robert Wyatt providing percussion flourishes. "Baby Song" song is almost funky, driven primarily by Hayward's stalwart drumming and a direct-recorded guitar. The closer, "Go Away," is an angry plea for isolation. Screams of chaos meet with a physical and confrontational arrangement that ends with a bombastic swell of violin shrieks.

Took me freaking half an hour tops to provide this fan-boy narrative of a record review. Hope this gives people a better idea of what this album sounds like, instead of a completely useless three sentence fart that simply reinforces the album's existence.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You Almost Have To Feel Bad For Black Kids

So, let's say you're one of the Black Kids.

You're from Jacksonville, Florida, which already sucks. I mean, ok, I guess you might get to see NFL bust Matt Jones walking around all white and beardy, but otherwise, gross. But anyway, you and your friends form a band, self-release a mediocre EP, and within minutes you're officially the Next Big Thing, as evidenced by constant, drooling coverage from NME and Pitchfork and the like.

So, you get a record deal, and you put out a record. And then THIS happens:

Yeah...those guys who loved you and hyped you up and pretty much guaranteed good things from you? They won't even deign to write a SINGLE SENTENCE about your record. Because, meh, sorry, didn't you know Fleet Foxes are the tits now?

And what does that "sorry" imply, anyway? "Sorry, readers, that we kept talking about this shitty band for 6 months and now have to admit that they're shitty"? Or "Sorry, Black Kids, but your check didn't clear"?

Or is it just a simple declarative statement: "This is some sorry, sorry shit."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Upcoming Scrawls

This week will try and touch on the following records:

The Raincoats - Odyshape

It's coming in the mail right now, and a review will be quick and painless, something to erase bad memories from one's tainted mind

La Dusseldorf- Viva!

Klaus Dinger, he of the staple motorik drumbeat, unveils his krautrock masterwork on my ears. The world explodes.

Hawkwind - Space Ritual

Lemmy on bass, proto-punk riffing, saxophone orgies, terrible cosmic poetry. It's gonna be awezome.

Rolling Stones - Emotional Rescue

Oft-forgotten weird Stones album. The title track is really weird. That's all I got right now.

Swell Maps - Jane From Occupied Europe

A travesty of an album review by allmusic leads me to review and then submit said review to allmusic. Will it be rejected? Most likely. Ah well.