Sunday, May 30, 2010

LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

The 3rd album from LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening, is an instant classic which will be noted in any retrospective on music from the early 2010's. I realized this during my first listen, around the fourth track. It is the Merriweather Post Pavilion of this year and surely will be named #1 album of 2010 by this website. My problem is that I have listened to it so often already, and have already memorized almost all of the lyrics, that most of its magic is now gone. I haven't quite had the album for two weeks, but I have listened to it every single day, at least once.

There is talk that this will be the last LCD Soundsystem album, and the last tour. If so, you might as well kill me when the summer ends because there is not much else worth listening to in my opinion. There are a lot of interesting bands coming out like Dum Dum Girls and Sleigh Bells, and while I like them, and Surfer Blood, they don't come close to matching LCD's capabilities. This album isn't perfect, but it's close enough to perfect to make the case for being an all-time classic.

"Dance Yrself Clean" opens up the album with a 9 minute dance track that starts out very quietly for its first two, erupts for the next four, quiets down again for another, and returns one last time before ending for good. The song is about how people are jerks--present company excluded--and how losing yourself in music or dance can make it all seem insignificant. It is a great song, but I am always hoping for it to end so the next one can start.

"Drunk Girls" may not be the best song on the album, but it's the shortest, the most tightly-packed with ideas, and probably the catchiest. Definitely the funniest. There is a peculiar type of genre that this album (and to a certain extent, other LCD albums) has spawned, and it is the "cover-like homage." Now, there are 2 songs on this album that are "cover-like homages" par excellence, but "Drunk Girls" is a "cover-like homage" that is like a mash-up between VU's "White Light/White Heat" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." That is the best way I can describe the song, but its lyrical performance is what truly sets it apart. Every stereotype or generalization ever made about girls or boys in relation to partying or hanging out at bars is practically contained, with a very ambiguous attitude. The song doesn't stand in judgment of its subjects necessarily, but it does poke fun.

"One Touch" sounds like something off of 45:33 or the LCD S/T. It's a pretty straightforward dance track with one difference: it seems to be able to induce me into a trance. The lyrics are about how someone "doesn't see how we could be pleased with this" because "we've been waiting such a long time." Obviously you could say that about this album, but I can't believe anyone wouldn't be pleased by this album. The song is good, but not one of the very best off the album. Still, trance-inducing, which is cool.

"All I Want" comes fourth and is the first obvious "cover-like homage" of the album. There are a few things to say about it: #1-James Murphy plays every single instrument on this song, and it is a masterpiece, which shows he is a genius, #2-It is the "All My Friends" of this album--and while it doesn't quite reach the heights of that song, it comes damn close, and #3-If David Bowie hears it, he would not sue, but laugh in appreciation. Just the opening of the song, the first minute, is enough to send chills. Lyrically, it may be one of the LCD's saddest songs along with "Someone Great"--it seems to make the point that relationships primarily exist to satisfy one's narcissism. Maybe that doesn't make any sense, but it's a song about complex feelings.

"I Can Change" seems like the lightest song on the album and first has Murphy advising, "Never change/never change/never change/this is why I fell in love" and then has him assuring, "I can change/I can change/I can change/if it helps you fall in love." The song is most notable for his use of falsetto when he sings "hoping and hoping and hoping the feeling goes away!" It's the greatest moment of the song, but overall, it sounds almost intentionally cheesy, as if Murphy knows the chief sentiment of the song is a cliche of adult relationships.

"You Wanted a Hit" is the sixth track, and arguably the best song on the album. It's a return to the 9 minute dance track, except its decidedly downbeat. There is a weird type of Asian music that opens the song, then fades out for the lone guitar line which persists through the entire song--guitar that might be heard on a Young Marble Giants or Gang of Four album--very simple, almost quiet, but evil in a way, and sort of badass. It's a fantastic song about music criticism.

"Pow Pow" is another 9 minute dance track that immediately follows, and another contender for best song on the album. There is definitely a lot more going on here on the previous track--it almost like sounds like a New Order opening, and then some of the best opening lines of any song, "From this position/I will relax..." "Drunk Girls" may be the funniest song, but "Pow Pow" has the most ridiculous lyrics, they are just usually mumbled or otherwise less audible.

"Somebody's Calling Me" is the other obvious "cover-like homage" and the only song on the album that I don't really like. I'm sorry but it sounds kind of depressing and dreadful, like the song that inspired it. I skip it often.

"Home" is a great closing track that reminds me strangely of the Dismemberment Plan song "Back and Forth," which closed out one of their semi-masterpiece albums. It's less remarkable than many of the other songs, but totally pleasing.

At 9 tracks and 65 minutes, it's not easy to make it straight from the beginning to the end, but it's a loaded album that somehow, incredibly, is actually better than Sound of Silver. It's like Ada being better than Lolita. You never thought it was possible, except from the same person. I may have over-indulged during these last two weeks of May, but there could not be many better ways to start the summer than the release of this album.

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

Arctic Monkeys were the biggest English buzz band five years ago and now they are a reliable entity as far as releasing a couple good singles and not stocking up their album with too much filler goes. Then again, I think this is their worst album. And again, not that it's bad, just not as good as their first two.

But there are about five really good songs--"My Propeller," "Crying Lightning," "Potion Approaching," "The Fire and Thud," and "Cornerstone,"--which is probably more than you can say for any previous album. There was speculation that Humbug would be their "stoner rock" album, since Josh Homme produced it in the desert of California. It may sound like that during about three different parts on the album, but it sounds more just like the Arctic Monkeys growing up.

Their sound has definitely matured, and on tracks like "Crying Lightning," it is enhanced. But "Cornerstone" (though listed as a "really good song") is kind of boring, and is only great for its lyrics, which is about finding lookalikes of a lost lover and asking if you can call them by the wrong name.

So basically, same problem with the New Pornographers and Broken Social Scene (though Arctic Monkeys are about 1/5 as "mellow"), the new album just doesn't have a lot of songs like "Brianstorm" or "D is for Dangerous" or "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" or "From the Ritz to the Rubble." Its songs sound more like "Do Me a Favour"--which was a great song off Favourite Worst Nightmare--but which gets a bit tiresome without much variety surrounding.

I guess I am being picky. Humbug is their "stoner rock" album and it is cool that they worked with Josh Homme, and it's totally possible that the Monkeys will continue on in this direction and put out their next album which doesn't make too many changes. Overall, I am not upset that I bought it, but find it to be somewhat unremarkable. So maybe you can understand why this is such a short post. I didn't even care about writing it in the first place.

In comparison with their Domino labelmates, Humbug is better than Hidden (not as immaculate, but more immediate), but not as good as Your Future Our Clutter.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

In the promotional packet for the student life section of my future home (*and the impetus for a prolonged hiatus coming up here on Flying Houses*), the Hold Steady is pictured, with the caption, "Brooklyn Band." I am sure this particular institution had their share of options (were I in charge of marketing, it would be Animal Collective), but I suppose the Hold Steady does bring a wider appeal to the potential law student than the usual experimentation going on in the Brooklyn music scene. That said, they're not that experimental, and this album is no different from Stay Postive.

Franz Nicolay left the band, and this is perhaps the major turning point in the band's sound up to this point: no more keyboards. It's back to the same basics as Almost Killed Me. But, Almost Killed Me is about twice as good as Heaven is Whenever. What gives?

Nicolay will be missed, live at least. But Heaven is Whenever is not much different from Stay Positive in terms of its general quality, and as has always been the case for this band, in terms of its general subject matter. Craig Finn does still find ways to bring cleverness into his lyrics, which saves the album from being totally reductive. Not that the songwriting is bad or anything, but on at least a few songs I am driven to comparing riffs from previous albums.

If anything is different, it's that a few of the songs (the first track and last track stand out in this sense, but something idiosyncratic may be coming up...) sound country. These aren't the albums weakest points either, they're just unsettling. "Soft in the Center" and "The Weekenders" and "Our Whole Lives" all pretty much deliver in the same way a bunch of other not quite as memorable HS songs have in the past. Sadly, this isn't half the album that any of their first three were. It's Stay Positive, without Franz Nicolay.

OKAY, maybe Almost Killed Me isn't "twice as good" as Heaven is Whenever, but Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America both are. Since we've written about a few bands that have had career trajectories like this (BSS, New Pornographers) perhaps we need to have this conversation:

Is it worthwhile for a band to go on if the inspiration has seem to run dry? In most cases, I would say yes. It is worthwhile, because they can still deliver a powerful live experience. If any of these bands were to hear that accusation, however, they would be incensed (I assume). To accuse them of not being inspired. But this conversation has a different origin, found in my own frustrated attempts at art in a different field, and I have asked the question, do you need inspiration to write, and I heard the resounding answer ("NO"; "it's a job like anything else") and I do not buy it. But being in a rock band is different than being a writer. The Hold Steady are one of the better live bands that still don't truly have national notoriety (though they have more than fellow Brooklynites Les Savy Fav, who have the best live show) and I wouldn't miss the chance to see them. I just wonder about the sort of albums they mean to put out. They recognize their appeal as a "live band" first and "studio band" second, and they tour relentlessly, and they seem like they are having more fun than 90% of their colleagues, and so life must be a dream, that's all. Life must be great for them, and when things get too comfortable, I think art can sometimes suffer. I'm not saying you need to suffer to make good art, I'm just saying you have to know the place it comes from. Craig Finn knows the place it comes from, and he has repeatedly mined it for the last six years, and as "experimental" or "less anthemic" as they've purported to be over the last two, they sound like a band spinning its wheels, waking up every day and going to work, saving up for the futures of their families, and getting drunk, but within reason. I think Craig Finn needs to make the next Hold Steady album an homage to Zen Arcade or Pleased to Meet Me or some other hardcore Twin Cities band's opus. It would be interesting to see his capabilities when aiming for a higher mark. Otherwise I'm afraid I'll be writing the same review four years from now.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

Oeuvre rule: I have only read one other book by Hesse--Siddhartha--and that was a masterpiece. It was assigned to me my freshman year in college, and it was one of those moments that is able to make one very pleased with the trajectory of their education. The book carries great wisdom and much profundity. It is about one person's journey towards spiritual enlightenment. And so is Steppenwolf. They were published only a few years apart, and one cannot help but wondering what tumult in Hesse's life may have contributed towards the theme in these novels: Siddhartha posits that the most natural path towards enlightenment is asceticism, whereas Steppenwolf--published later--seems to indicate that enlightenment can come courtesy of magic theaters, drugs, sex with loose women, and conversations with Mozart.

I have to be honest and say that I enjoyed Siddhartha more. Perhaps if Steppenwolf were assigned to me it would have been more enjoyable. But it is certainly more "adult" than that previous volume, and as Hesse indicates in his foreword to a later edition, easily misinterpreted by youth that enjoy the more rebellious aspects of its protagonist:

"Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis--but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing." (vi)

What is the story about? Harry Haller, who is about fifty years old, who has been married and lived a past life that allowed him to save up income, but who is now alone, seeking a room for rent in an undisclosed city. The entire mood of the novel is quite postmodern, and many of the surreal landscapes may be reflected in more contemporary novelists like Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. For being written around the same time as The Great Gatsby, Steppenwolf seems remarkably futuristic, modern, and especially prophetic--perhaps most clearly witnessed in a short scene discussing wireless technology.

Harry is a very depressed person who longs to kill himself right around age fifty. But more to the point--his personality is split in two sides: the wolf and the man. For the first hundred pages of this novel, the duality of the soul is often discussed. Harry goes out to a bar, and then passes by a mysterious entryway to a Magic Theater "for madmen only." Later he finds a vendor in the area, who gives him a pamphlet--"The Treatise on the Steppenwolf."

This novel is broken up into only a few parts:
-the preface (written by another housemate of Harry's, as introduction to Harry's records)
-the opening of Harry's records
-The Treatise on the Steppenwolf
-the encounter of Hermine, and the new way of life
-The Masked Ball/Magic Theater episode

It is not broken up into particularly digestible chapters, and though the book is scarcely more than 200 pages, there are often long, dense passages that make the book seem longer than 300 pages. Some of the material on the division of personalities in the Steppenwolf is quite excellent and thought-provoking:

"We need not be surprised that even so intelligent and educated a man as Harry should take himself for a Steppenwolf and reduce the rich and complex organism of his life to a formula so simple, so rudimentary and primitive. Man is not capable of thought in any high degree, and even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications--and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again. The judge who sits over the murderer and looks into his face, and at one moment recognizes all the emotions and potentialities and possibilities of the murderer in his own soul and hear's the murderer's voice as his own, is at the next moment one and indivisible as the judge, and scuttles back into the shell of the cultivated self and does his duty and condemns the murderer to death. And if ever the suspicion of their manifold beings dawns upon men of unusual powers and they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves, they have only to say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key, calls science to aid, establishes schizomania and protects humanity from the necessity of hearing the cry of truth from the lips of these unfortunate persons. Why then waste words, why utter a thing that every thinking man accepts as self-evident, when the mere utterance of it is a breach of taste? A man, therefore, who gets so far as making the supposed unity of the self two-fold is already almost a genius, in any case a most exceptional and interesting person. In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon. Even the best of us shares this delusion." (58-59)

But you can see within this passage alone one of my few complaints about the book: it tends to get repetitive when discussing a particular concept for more than a page or two. And there are many intriguing concepts that Hesse contemplates, but the division of the soul into hundreds, or thousands of different personalities is perhaps the essential point of the novel.

Harry goes to visit a professor friend of his who has a picture of Goethe. Goethe is an old man in the portrait, but very luxuriously pictured--not at all Harry's concept of the noble poet. This leads to a row, and then a bar visit, where Harry meets Hermine. She immediately seems to understand him, and signals a new phase in his life.

There is a curious scene where Hermine asks Harry to guess her name. He knows that he recognizes something in her face from his own past, and he comes to the same realization as Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain about Clavdia, the object of his affections. In Clavdia, Hans sees Hippe and in Hermine, Harry sees Herman--both friends from their youth of the same sex. This is a vaguely peculiar coincidence, as The Magic Mountain and Steppenwolf are contemporaneous, as Hesse is two years younger than Mann, as both went on to win the Nobel. It does seem that Hesse may have borrowed this particular trope, but one cannot claim that it fails to comply with the theme of "personality division." Later, when Hermine dresses as a boy for the Masked Ball, or is often described as "boyish," it seems to beg more questions of homosexual "potentialities" than any other portion--but no direct link or answer is proposed. See here for previous example:

Later Hermine introduces Harry to her friend Pablo, a saxophonist that offers him funny cigarettes, rejuvenating powder, and a threesome with him and Hermine. As soon as the book shifts into this phase, it becomes wild and crazy. You forget you are reading something written in the twenties. The Masked Ball is transformed into the Magic Theater, and Pablo becomes the Host that offers its delights to Harry.

The Magic Theater sequence is the climax of the novel and its most creative moment. The kinds of experience one could have in the Magic Theater are only possible via two avenues: dreams, or hallucinations prompted by psychedelics. Harry is offered a strange cigarette upon entrance, and later enters an array of doors leading into different worlds. The first is a world of anarchy, demolition derby, and ideological Marxist murder. Another is a series of living memories of every single woman he has ever loved. Another is a chess game that will teach him how to "build up his personality."

The novel ends in the Magic Theater with Harry talking to Mozart, trying to come to some kind of epiphany about what he has experienced. His journey is a happy one, for the most part, despite a gruesome scene or two, and it seems quite clear that Harry's dilemma is solved by "healing" and not "death and destruction."

I would recommend Steppenwolf for anyone feeling particularly depressed or hopeless, and though I found it to be profound on several levels, had a difficult time "getting into it" or moving quickly through it--except for the last thirty pages.

There is one more personal quality I share with this novel, and it is a short story I wrote in December 2007, prompted by a dream. The story ended up being about a "secret museum" devoted to suicide. There are different attractions inside the museum that lead its audience into some kind of deeper understanding of their personality, or station in life. A friend recommended Steppenwolf and mentioned that it reminded him of that story. And indeed, upon reading it, I was seized with many wonderful feelings of deja vu, leading me to reflect upon the boundaries of the imagination, and the similarities of imaginations. It also made me feel better about that short story. Obviously it does not have the same scope as this novel, but to have written something so eerily similar without any kind of foreknowledge makes me feel like I must have been doing something right. The wait for publication beats on...

Monday, May 17, 2010

These New Puritans - Hidden

When we last checked in with These New Puritans, they were putting out their debut around the same time as Vampire Weekend, and I was claiming that they were the better band. Proof?

Quote #1 from review of debut:
"TNP won't necessarily be for everyone...."
It may have been clear after Beat Pyramid that TNP did not cater to the masses and did not aspire to radio airplay. But the album still had a very accessible streak running through it. This is not the case with Hidden.

Hidden is arguably the most "difficult" album I have ever heard. It has its moments of accessibility too, but overall it is a very imposing album indeed. Most notable, however, is the degree to which this doesn't even sound like the same band.

It's like a novelist trying to do something completely different (the quick obvious example is Dave Eggers moving from AHWOSG to What is the What, but those were not consecutive releases, both were successful on their own terms, and Dave Eggers is way more visible than TNP in the literary-musical analogy) with their next book so they can prove they can write about more than one topic. I don't think TNP needed to prove anything after Beat Pyramid.

Quote #2:
"...I think it shows that TNP is more interesting than TNV (Times New Viking) or VW (Vampire Weekend), but I don't think they'll get as much attention as either."

Duh. Putting out an album like Hidden will not get them any more attention either. OK. Hidden is a very ambitious album. Maybe it's Kid A in disguise. There. That is the comparison I was looking for.

Except Beat Pyramid wasn't OK Computer. I don't know what fans of TNP are making of this album. I am assuming they trust Jack Barnett and now look towards him as some sort of demi-god. I think he is crazy. There was a great feature on Pitchfork where he said he doesn't think he'll sing on any more albums and where claimed one of his favorite songs was an ultra-obscure selection from Pocahontas. I am assuming he still wears his chain mail armor onstage. In my last post, I mentioned that Kevin Drew is becoming more iconoclastic, but Barnett is way ahead of him, and at this point beyond M.E.S. himself.

I may claim their soon-to-be-former singer/frontman is crazy, but there is a method to it. It does seem to be a concept album about the end of the world. Or global warming. But Hidden is an album you could talk about for hours in trying to assess its meaning.

Not that anyone would--and this is the album's chief defect: it's so different from anything that's come before it that the listener has no bearings. Much mention is made of the lack of guitar on this album. Throw even less lyrics than before into the mix and you have a very moody, largely instrumental and atmospheric album with occasional doses of vicious noise. But unlike Sisterworld, the music is primarily orchestral, and it never veers into anything resembling punk rock.

KEEPING ALL OF THAT IN MIND, "We Want War" contains a beautiful moment or two, "Hologram" is the closest thing to a fully-pleasant experience, "Attack Music" and "Fire-Power" go back-to-back as the most straightforward stuff on the album, "Orion" has a moment or two of greatness, and that "Drum Courts..." song is definitely something, alright.

Quote #3: "However, if they imitate the Fall more on their next album, they will probably deliver album of the year and will be a buzz band two years from now and no one will remember their debut coming out or else they will drop off the face of the Earth and no one will remember them in three years."

Neither happened, but few know who TNP are, and putting out an album like Hidden could be akin to dropping off the face of the Earth (particularly if the album is about the end of the Earth), so it is possible that TNP will become a cultural artifact by 2011 and no one will know they ever existed.

OK. That's not true. They're well-documented. I document them because I care about them. I don't know if Hidden will make my top 10 of 2010--but I doubt it. I just don't think I'll listen to it enough to figure it out to be able to blast it incessantly and gain some kind of pleasure from it. This is a very moody album for moods that almost don't exist--or moods that aren't advisable: ultra-depressed, evil, intellectual, portentous, and (forgive me) pretentious.

If they had listened to my advice, they could have put out a top 10 contender along with their inspirational predecessors on Domino Records, but I have a lot of respect for making a statement like Hidden. I spent money on this album--I'm crazy--and maybe it will sell as well as it needs to--but the only kind of music like this is made to accompany strange and scary movies. Perhaps there is something of Fantomas in here too.

Vampire Weekend put out their sophomore effort too, and while I haven't heard it, I'm assuming it doesn't sound too different from their self-titled. Apparently they experiment a bit, but obviously it's not as ridiculous as the experiment that is Hidden.

I've got my own prediction for the next couple years: in (or by) 2012, if the world isn't already over then Vampire Weekend will put out their third album--their Merriweather Post Pavilion masterpiece that will finally win me over--and TNP will release an album of ambient music as they transform themselves into an artier version of the Kronos Quartet.

In the meantime I will listen to Hidden, probably more often than Beat Pyramid, solely in an attempt to understand its message (and I will emerge from my underground lair with an apparatus that will bring humanity to its knees).

Maybe time travel has something to do with it too.

If there are such things as secret recordings hiding in plain sight....well there are, and this is one of them. The question is whether you think the secret will be worth hearing or not. My opinion is that I can't tell. It should be fairly easy, though, to guess how consumers will react.

Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

Part 2 of our Canadian double-bill features Broken Social Scene, a similar group of Canadian musical artists to New Pornographers--with one major difference: New Pornos band members were already "famous" when they started their supergroup; BSS became famous after forming the collective. I don't think many people knew who Feist was before You Forgot it in People.

So this is technically the 4th BSS album, but the first is practically a moot point (i.e. same goes for Deerhunter, or Sunset Rubdown for that matter). The 2nd, You Forgot it in People, and the 3rd, Broken Social Scene, are debatable masterpieces. The size of the group seemed to swell as time went on.

Apparently they were about to break up after their last album, so the title of this one is appropriate. It's also worth noting that both Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning put out solo albums in the interim underneath the "BSS presents" banner. They toured with many members of the band each time, so it's not like it's really been four years since there's been any new music from these guys.

And while I haven't heard the Canning solo album, it's quite clear that Forgiveness Rock Record is better than Drew's Spirit If...(by no means a bad album, just one that often bores--though it does aim for a different mark), but also quite clear that Forgiveness Rock Record is the worst thing they've done since their debut.

Maybe that's a mean way of saying it, but it's the way I feel. Sure, "World Sick" is a pretty good first single, but it's not all that satisfying. "Chase Scene" (which tops out the set with 14 members playing on it) is probably my favorite song, and it seems more like a left-field experiment than a potential radio hit. "Texico Bitches" sounds exactly like something off Spirit If... not a bad thing, but kind of uninteresting for the same reason.

"Forced to Love" is probably my second favorite song, probably the only thing that sounds like classic BSS on this album. "Art House Director" could be a great song in the same way that "World Sick" could be a great song--like, it is apparently, but somewhere in the execution it falls flat. "Meet Me in the Basement" would be the best song on the album if it had lyrics. "Water in Hell" is the track second-most like classic BSS, thus my third favorite.

It's complicated to discuss my idiosyncratic beliefs about Canadian indie rock supergroups, but I do believe that BSS and New Pornos shared the same high in 2003 and have stuck around largely because of that early buzz. For my money, the self titled Broken Social Scene album of 2006 is their best single statement and it's going to be a very tough one to top--but live....

This is why I put these posts together on the same day: BSS are at least 2x as good as the New Pornos live. I've seen them three or four times. Only once was I vaguely disappointed. I am sure that live, these songs will be given new life. Kevin Drew is becoming increasingly iconoclastic. While I wish there were more signs of his obsession with Dinosaur Jr. on this album, I'll greatly look forward to seeing this band at the Pitchfork festival this summer. If it doesn't sell out by Memorial Day, at least.

New Pornographers - Together

Today on Flying Houses, we feature a double-bill of Canadian indie rock supergroups who have recently released an album two weeks ago. The first is the New Pornographers.

I don't agree with most people about this band--not that I don't think they're great, but that their best work came at a certain moment. Together is their 5th album. It's on par with Twin Cinema, I think, which many claim is their strongest work. Which is my point of disagreement.

Of course there have been lively debates about whether Mass Romantic is better than Electric Version. At the time, the debut would usually edge the sophomore effort. But I don't want to talk about mainstream critical consensus, except to do a ranking:

Most other rock critics' estimation of the New Pornos catalog (best to worst):
1) Twin Cinema
2) Mass Romantic
3) Electric Version
4) Together
5) Challengers

My estimation of the New Pornos catalog:
1) Electric Version
2) Mass Romantic
3) Twin Cinema
4) Together
5) Challengers

note: there is nothing scientific about this claim.

So there really is no debate about where Together ends up in their pecking order. Obviously, it's an improvement over Challengers, though still falling short of their earlier, best work.

Would it be enough to say that it's a huge improvement over Challengers, and their first three albums are pretty much impossible heights to match, thus Together will be on the top 10 of 2010? I don't think so.

But it is a huge improvement over Challengers and "Your Hands (Together)" is one of the best songs the band has ever done and there are a couple others that might inspire similar claims. Still, something is missing. I don't know why everyone thought Twin Cinema was the height of their talent, but for me, that's when it started to head downhill. To me, Electric Version is the moment showcasing the height of the band's powers--every element that made them distinctive, original, fun, and almost perfectly polished came on at full strength. Twin Cinema is the beginning of their attempt at expanding their palette.

This is a band who had an enormous palette to begin with and actually began limiting themselves by trying to sound more "adult" or "mellow." Thus, Challengers, which is not a total disaster of an album, but definitely a hard one to appreciate. Any time you have Neko Case in your band, and anytime she sings on a song, it is pretty hard to make it into a total disaster. But every song without Neko...yeah...

She is the most important piece of the puzzle, and her presence on "Your Hands (Together)" is enough of a faint whiff of nostalgia to make longtime fans feel like it is 2003 again. Actually, the first time I heard the 1-2 punch of "Crash Years" and "Your Hands (Together)," I was ready to proclaim that they were back.

But in the end I've grown tired of the second track a bit and who knows how much I'll listen to Together. My problem with this album is the same problem I have with the New Pornos live--you're not quite sure what you're getting. I have been to a couple festivals where they were on the bill, and I was very excited each time, only to be disappointed by their sets, #1 because Neko Case was never there, and #2 because they attracted crowds too big for their stage, and #3 because their stage presence, crowd banter, live sound, or "energy translation" failed to meet my expectations.

The other day I listened to the first track, title-track, from Electric Version and it led me to reflect that the entire album was great, so the next day I drove into the city listening to that, not Together. To me that is a landmark album which completed the process Mass Romantic set out to begin--which was to create a new sound, a new genre, a new kind of indie rock band that might get mainstream. Certainly one of the best albums of 2003, but it's hard to stay on top.

But one other thing: I bought Together from Best Buy for $7.99. Totally worth the price.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Liars - Sisterworld

For their 5th album, Liars finally seem to settle down and deliver a crowd-pleaser. Their first album put them on the then-burgeoning electro-clash scene in 2002, and boasted several great tracks--the first two, and "We Live NE of Compton." There was also a portent of things to come in their last track, "This Dust that Makes Mud," which goes on for thirty minutes and is pretty much one of the most boring songs of all time.

For their second album, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, they famously eschewed the "pop hits" of their debut and delivered an apparently unlistenable concept album about witches. At the time--the first and only time I saw Liars live--that album seemed like a total snooze, though their live show contained crazy and weird energy. Seven years later the album continues to improve with practically every listen.

Their third album, Drum's Not Dead, took them away from L.A. and Brooklyn to Berlin, where one can assume they did a lot of drugs and partied a lot and created another weird concept album--but this time, a critically-acclaimed one. While Drum's Not Dead is a very unique listening experience, few can argue that it is not a beautiful album. That said it is also the least thrashy thing in their catalog.

Their 4th album is quite comparable to Sisterworld--Liars showed the band could bring their "pop hits" back, and still deliver an unsettling listening experience. Songs about running away and taking pills to end their lives and realizing that there is nothing to freak out about made them more accessible than they had ever been yet.

Enter Sisterworld--arguably not their first masterpiece, but certainly a masterpiece. By turns bombastic, hopelessly sweet and melancholy, and nihilistic, I have read and heard that Sisterworld is a concept album about L.A, and the many different landscapes and soundscapes of that city.

The most apparent difference on this album is the way they veer wildly between crazy thrash freakouts and Drum's Not Dead-esque contemplative moments. The album is nearly perfect from start to finish, but the singles stand out more than others--"Scissor," "Proud Evolution," and "The Overachievers." "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant" as well.

But to forget about "Here Comes All the People" (arguably the best song on the album--the one they spent a year perfecting), "Drip," and "I Can Still See an Outside World," would be a mistake. This album showcases both sides of the Liars, and in the perfect dosage.

Opening track "Scissor" has a fantastic video, if you haven't seen it. It's also a perfect way to open the album. The next three tracks are a bit quieter, but when you get to "Scarecrows..." you return to what is great about the Liars--their ridiculous lyrics. They are not printed, but it sounds as if Angus Andrew is saying, "Why'd you pass the bum on the street? 'Cause he bothered you!" (exclamation point obvious from listening). Then later--"Why'd you shoot the man with your gun? 'Cause he bothered you!" And then finally, the menacing end, "Stare them in the street with a gun (?), and then kill 'em all!" Liars have had many violent songs in their past, but this takes them all.

"The Overachievers" boasts similar lyrical genius. It's so simple, it's genius: "I bought a house with you/we settled down with cats/there wasn't much to do/so we just sat and watched the TV." What is great about this band is when you realize they're actually singing that. Later: "We surfed at Malibu/so we could see the stars/and when the sun fell off (?)/we drove back slow into Topanga(?)." Then later they talk about giving up on their jobs and spending the rest of their time walking through the forest. The sentiment is too precious.

Liars seem to have set the bar very high with this album. It'd be very difficult to top. A strong contender for one of the best albums of 2010, I think it is fair to say. I expect Liars to put out another album like They Were Wrong, So We Drowned after this. Regardless of their idiosyncratic nature, with this album they solidify themselves as one of the true powerhouse bands in indie rock. Whether you can get into them or not, if you hear it, you have to admire the artistry.