The Red Thread
On the surface, these records don't have much to do with each other, besides alphabetic proximity and the fact that they showed up in my mail box at the same time. And only a foolish reviewer would try to discuss them at the same time. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for you, I am incredibly foolish.
So, why review them at the same time? Because both records are about selling a mood, an emotional state of being that permeates them that overwhelms any individual content of the record, and certainly any specific musical moments. And, ultimately, your opinion on these records will almost entirely depend on your ability to emotionally connect with that mood...and in this case, I wasn't able to connect to either.
Aden's mood is pleasant. Not necessarily happy, but pleasant. The music (gtr.gtr.bass.drums, standard issue) may rock slightly at times, but never impolitely. The lyrics may get sad sometimes, but nothing that a good night's sleep wouldn't fix up. There's nothing you couldn't play in front of your parents, or that you would particularly mind in the background. But: there's nothing that suggests any emotional urgency of any kind, or that creates any other kind of defining impression stronger than "pleasant." Which, for some people, is undoubtedly the bee's knees. I'm sure there's many a 19-year-old for whom this is a soundtrack for walking around in the rain and looking at flowers. They're welcome to it.
I didn't know Aden before, but I did have one Arab Strap album (The Week Never Starts Around Here), so I thought I had some idea of what I was into: where Aden is pleasant, Arab Strap is miserable. Arab Strap is musically substantially less consistent (apart from the drum machine that's over most of the damn album); there's thin layers of guitar lines on some songs, while other songs burst with almost-orchestral swells, and others have a dance feel to them. However, the rock songs that dotted the earlier album are not to be found here. There's almost a palpable sense that they just don't have the emotional strength to rock -- they're too miserable. Again, I'm sure this album will be the soundtrack for heartbreak for more than one person, and it will mean more to them than life itself. However, I can't connect to it one damn bit right now, and I'm sort of glad. (DD)
(Teenbeat Records -- P.O. Box 390898, Cambridge, MA. 02139; http://www.teenbeatrecords.com/; Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/; Aden -- http://www.hot-licks.org/; Arab Strap -- http://www.arabstrap.co.uk/)
A Story in White
A twang of guilt at my perpetual tardiness in writing reviews for this here zine resulted in me putting this disc in my CD player. The result of that action was a compulsion to write this particular review right this instant, so that I don't have to listen to this particular album ever again. So, to cut to the chase, I don't like this album. Perhaps I'm getting old and crotchety, but I just can't get into most of the music coming out of the emo-rock craze currently sucking the remaining life out of indie-rock. I'm not even sure if this properly qualifies as emo (probably not), since much of it comes across as bargain basement Mogwai, but I'll include it anyway just based on the vocals. A lot of the songs on this album have long boring soft parts with annoying sensitive-boy singing, alternating with somewhat majestic distortion pedal parts, either with more sensitive-boy singing or some emo-screaming. Every now and then I find myself really getting into the music, only to have the vocals so rudely interrupt with classic lines like "Fuck the devil / Fuck myself". Looking at the press release, I see that Aereogramme are from Glasgow, include ex-Ganger singer/guitarist "Craig B", and are pals with Mogwai. If only that were enough. (CP)
(Matador Records -- 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY. 10012; http://www.matadorrecords.com/)
The beautiful thing about much music is the way it always reacts to check itself and react to itself. Too many keyboards and too much pretense in your music? Just wait, and punk will come along to save the day. Hip-hop works under the same guidelines, and while one could never say that the more intelligent and "underground" hip-hop only comes around when it's needed most (since it's always there, albeit out of popular view), it does seem to come into vogue right around the time when its counterparts in popular hip-hop seem at their most brainless and materialistic. It seems like only yesterday when Puff Daddy, Master P, and other such purveyors of the "cash and bitches" school of hip-hop were reigning kings, but in recent years the return to visibility of such hard-working, "intelligent" rappers as El-P, Mos Def, Dilated Peoples, Blackalicious, and of course, Aesop Rock, has ensured that hip-hop doesn't spin off into irrelevance, driven into an early grave by its own refusal to acknowledge a more down-to-earth reality. Again, this is a cycle which repeats itself over the years, with different styles stepping up to reinvigorate hip-hop, taking the reins from whatever previous style has started slippin', much like the harder gangsta rap of groups like NWA replaced MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice before eventually slipping into irrelevant self-parody itself.
Labor Days, Aesop Rock's second full-length album, falls into this category of "intelligent" hip-hop, the sort of thing critics like to call "a breath of fresh air." Indeed, it's a pretty impressive affair all 'round; string samples, hard-hitting street beats, and a clear, somewhat monotonous but always quick and authoritative vocal delivery sit comfortably in the mix with some very offbeat lyrical subject matter. Like the other rappers name-checked above, Aesop Rock steers clear of hip-hop clichés, battle-rapping, or shallow bragging, preferring to tell stories, describe city life, exhort the masses to greater self-consciousness, and reference mythological figures and history. Despite the fact that his tongue-twisting delivery moves at such a speed that it occasionally becomes a bit overwhelming and hard to process, his beats, samples, and general attitude throughout reflect more a veteran rapper comfortable at the top of his game, with something to say and a somewhat blue collar outlook, than an intellectual elitist interested only in playing games with language. While his flights of lyrical fancy may occasionally fly higher than the average listener cares to follow, the beats are always danceable, and keep the whole affair well grounded in the street, and his voice is one of those baritone wonders, crisp, charismatic, and precise without sounding practiced, and always demanding attention. Definitely check this album out; its a prime example of hip-hop that's just as good at making you think as it is at making you shake your ass, just as good at a party as it is for those long night drives when youre enjoying the solitude. (CE)
(Definitive Jux Recordings -- firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.defjux.net/)
Nothing For Anyone
Remember the first time you heard the Pretenders? Well, this disc reminds me of the style and vocal presence of that band. I hate having to make such comparisons, as it seems to detract from the value and originality of an artist's work -- in my defense, however, it is a good way of using musical shorthand to let you know what to expect. Most of the compositions here seem to be observations of things around the composer that are meant, I assume, to convey dark and intimate images imbued with meaning and emotion. They seem to be very personal observations and descriptions. There is enough ambiguity to the compositions to allow the listener to bring whatever emotive content they may wish to them. Generally, though, the images are bleak and not too optimistic. There is a worn-out and tired or beaten feel to this recording, which is a very difficult trick, and this band does it well. I am reminded of the rust belt in America and the shattered dreams and disillusionment of empty warehouses. There are no pop hooks here; no need. It's too rainy and overcast and sad. Good job at portraying shoegazer sentiments in another form.
Production value is a B to B-, not terribly bad, but not kicking to the degree one would like to hear. In fact, this CD sounds like a gig promotion tape turned into a CD; I bet the live shows are different. I believe Ms. Elkins, the singer, has a lot to say to us, and I want to know what it is! Damn it, in the next CD let's really get to know you, Elizabeth, like we know Chrissie, Lucinda, Patti, and (so as not to be sexist) Bob, Iggy and Neil. (BW)
(Gate Crasher Records -- P.O. Box 15442, Atlanta, GA. 30333; Alastor -- http://www.alastorweb.com/)
One-sheets are a bitch. For those of you unfamiliar with them, one-sheets communicate to the reviewer of the record the pre-digested information that the record label or band promoter wants you to know about the band. AM/FM's one-sheet prominently features a quote to the effect that they sound like "Pavement playing Pink Floyd songs at a picnic." Well, I had no idea what that would sound like, so I put it in. And, with a couple exceptions, I can't think of any other way to describe it now (assuming you define Pavement circa "Range Life" instead of, say, "Baptiss Blacktick"). Which leads me down all sorts of random paths, like: was this AM/FM's goal? Was this market tested? Did they consider other options, like, say, Archers of Loaf playing King Crimson at a carnival? Slipknot playing Philip Glass at a NARAL rally? Or did it just work out that way?
I'm being silly, because I don't have much else to say. In a way, the AM/FM moniker is very apt: it's FM music filtered through an AM sensibility. Largely inoffensive, and if you've always wanted to hear Pavement playing Pink Floyd songs at a picnic, here you are. (DD)
(Polyvinyl Record Co. -- P.O. Box 1885, Danville, IL. 61834; email@example.com; http://www.polyvinylrecords.com/; AM/FM -- http://www.theamfm.com/)
The Ends Against The Middle
The EP before the recently-released Arrhythmia is my introduction to APC. This set of seven songs all fits under the "electronica" banner, I guess, except that about half the tracks have rappers over them. Being horribly undereducated in this field, I can't really say what other antecedents there are for this sort of thing. As sound, it's unimpeachable -- interesting textures, talented rappers. If it sounds like I'm dancing around something, I am, and that's this -- none of this sticks with me. Listening to it for the fourth time (granted, not in rapid succession), I recall nothing from previous listens. I don't understand if I just need to listen to this more or if that's the nature of this record, that its Teflon-coated sound is designed to avoid sticking in mind. While I try to figure out what's wrong with me, I will tell anyone that's interested in hip-hop, electronica, and their confluence that they need to pay attention to the Antipop Consortium. (DD)
(Warp Records -- 503 8th Avenue, 4th Floor, Brooklyn, NY. 11215; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warp-net.com/; Antipop Consortium -- http://www.warprecords.com/antipop/)
Darling I'm Your Devil
From the disclaimer ("this music was meant to be listened to at night") to the revealing drama of the lyrics, Nate Ashley's Darling I'm Your Devil is a very personal endeavor. It's like reading the diary of someone wrestling with being out of a relationship and all the feelings and thoughts that newfound loneliness can create. The songs are also filled with those musings on life that come when you have copious amounts of spare time and quiet with nothing to do but think. The music covers a broad range of styles, from Latin beats to folk to bluesy jazz to more traditional acoustic pop formulas. Nate experiments with samplings of different electronic and synthesized sounds to create multi-layered meditations, and his vocal stylings, high and breathy, round out and complete the musical portrayal of one sweating out the long, lonely hours of the night.
However, despite the notable effort and talent here, I can't say that I really enjoyed listening to this CD. There are many nice things going on in the tracks (like the soothing underlying melodies and the undeniable beauty of Nate's voice), but there always seems to be something in there to cancel out the goodness. Strangely-placed vocal distortions and downright cheesy synthesized sounds, to name a few examples, take away from what is otherwise thoughtful and deeply-felt music. I'm impressed with any singer/songwriter who can create an entire album in their bedroom and have it come out sounding this professional (such is the story I heard of how it was produced), but listening, I got really bored and distracted. If I listened to it at night, it would only be to induce sleep. (NL)
(Left-Handed Label -- email@example.com; http://www.lefthandedlabel.com/)
The Atari Star
Shrp Knf Cts Mtns
Tension and release are common currency in pop music, and a hell of a lot of the stuff that irks me skews the ratio overwhelmingly towards the latter. Release, says I, must be earned; cranking out a payoff means nothing if it hasn't been set up properly. Failure to recognize this results in the "don't bore us, get to the chorus" mentality, the treatment of the Who's "See Me Feel Me" (not the name of the song, not that anyone cares) as a single and the recent spate of oversingers that threatens to overtake the hearts and minds of impressionable music listeners like a lion bearing down on a limping gazelle.
Unresolved tension is a different story entirely. If the journey's satisfying enough, it doesn't ultimately matter where you end up. By design or no, the Atari Star's Shrp Knf Cts Mtns embraces this philosophy, playing on our knowledge of the clichés that abound in the saturated alt-marketplace and defying our expectations at almost every turn. Just when you think that distortion is going to envelop the chorus of a song like "Someone More Deserving Than Myself," it doesn't, nor does singer Marc Ruvolo choose the moment to engage in increasingly impassioned emoting. Instead, they just hold steady, the instrumentation drier than a lint trap and the vocals no less stoic for being deliciously melodic. And that, through entirely passive means, jacks up the tension even further via the simple expedient of no release, which means we're waiting, expectantly, for something to happen. And then they've got us. It's not a question of the Atari Star failing to deliver so much as a decision to see what can legitimately be done to forestall resolution further.
In so doing, the band finds a comfortably nervous tone, that of a spring about to snap, and doesn't deviate from it until "Archipelago," a piano-and-violin ballad that closes the album with about the same degree of success as all album-closing piano-and-violin ballads. It dissipates the tension but doesn't quite resolve it, and there's a part of me that actually prefers it that way, as though resolution at that point in the album would somehow be dishonest to everything that's come before. Sometimes endings aren't so neat and tidy, and Shrp Knf Cts Mtns plays utterly fair by the rules it establishes; you may like it or loathe it, but it's all of a piece, possessed of a singular sonic stamp like a skewed, electric John Wesley Harding played by the Flying Nun crowd circa the mid-'80s. And it unnerves me on a fundamental level like no band since Possum Dixon. (MH)
(Johann's Face Records -- http://www.johannsface.com/; The Atari Star -- http://www.theataristar.com/)
Ativin creates atmospheric, minimal mostly-instrumental rock, tending to prefer to convey feelings and textures rather than actual melodies. On Interiors, Ativin uses repetition to build denser, more involved pieces that seem simpler than they are; even vocals are used more as another instrument in the mix.
"When the Sky Turns Clear" begins like a pastoral MBV song (a decent starting point for describing their sound) with lazy vocals; it starts off quiet and pastoral, like a cold winter day, moving a little like Red Red Meat. About half-way through, the scene changes, and the music builds to a rhythm that is confused about where it wants to go, while the instruments head off in different directions in a cloud of murky electronic and guitar sounds.
Ativin uses unusual instrument sounds, as well as some electronics here and there. The song "A Single Crease" sounds like greasy organ funk with stage fright and perpetual shyness, except that it's actually a cello instead of an organ. "Near North" sounds like an electronic piece where the drummer forgot what the beat was supposed to be.
Most of the songs work in similar territory. "Dead Horses" starts off like a lullaby, but moves forward before everyone is completely awake. Or maybe it's just too early in the morning to rock, so they don't. "Under Blankets" is a song snippet where cello and violin respond to a repeated guitar phrase which changes very slowly like ice melting on the surface of a frozen lake, where it has a long way to go before it can break through completely. (HM)
(Secretly Canadian Records -- 1021 South Walnut, Bloomington, IN. 47401; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.secretlycanadian.com/)
Autechre has had gallons of positive ink spilled in their praise, and while I can't say as how I typically go for all this "electronica" stuff so popular with the youth of today, the cumulative effect of said ink convinced me to check them out. And I can't say I'm sorry for a second; in fact, I'm kicking myself for missing out on their recent jaunt through town. I'd say that Autechre is electronic music for people who don't like electronica, since they seem absent of many of the traditional elements (played-out "beats," wacky cultural misappropriation, what-have-you). However, it seems like plenty of electronica fans like them, too. What do they sound like? To me, they sound like a curious hybrid between the mechanical and the organic. If David Cronenberg were to make a movie about automated machines that slowly morphed into lumpy organic beings, I bet Autechre would be the soundtrack for their transitory state, as they heave around in an off-kilter rhythm with metal-studded bones and wires ripping through flesh. That's intended as a compliment. (Although, in practice, the music tends more towards the mechanical sounds used in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket than anything I recall Cronenberg using, but that's neither here nor there.) I can't speak for their other records, but this one is top-drawer, and makes me wonder what other great electronic music I'm missing out on. (DD)
(Warp Records -- 503 8th Avenue, 4th Floor, Brooklyn, NY. 11215; email@example.com; http://www.warp-net.com/)