Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel - Atlas Sound

Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

Atlas Sound
Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

Hard to believe that twelve months ago, Bradford Cox was virtually unknown. Beyond the tiny circle of Atlanta-based fans who may have picked up debut Turn It Up Fa**ot, Deerhunter sent shockwaves through the indie-music world with the release of Cryptograms. Its subsequent tour only energized the hype further as fans, bloggers and critics alike met the voice behind Deerhunter’s deafening drones. Equal parts defiant, confrontational, fey and withdrawn, Cox became the posterboy for America’s suburban angst. He was too willingly deranged to be considered a mere misfit, and too unpredictable to be labeled. To put it best, it was inevitable that such an explosive personality would put out a solo album, and after the band released the Fluorescent Grey EP, Cox set out on his own.

Little did we know at the time, that flying solo would also be returning to form. Cox has been recording as Atlas Sound for over a decade, singing over cheap four tracks and building static from tape hisses. Suffering from Marfan’s Syndrome and bedridden for seasons at a time, Cox had no shortage of time during his teenage years to experiment with recorded sound, and he likely views Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel as a long-awaited credit roll to all those tumultuous years demoing.

Being that his moniker is so personal, these intensely raw lyrics should be expected. The family-archive tape of ‘Ghost Story’, which nearly concaves before blurring into electronic waves, describes the life of a ghost who found comfort in isolation, discovered that scaring people could be fun, and eventually returns to haunt the walls that housed his death. The following thirteen songs all breathe within that vaporous premise, whether lyrically (those drowned by their love in ‘River Card’, the isolated loneliness of ‘Quarantined’ and ‘On Guard’) or sonically, where each song is threatened by or living in dense ambience. Even Cox’s voice rarely leaves a ghostly register, speaking over atmospheric passages without rhyme or rhythm, allowing his voice to simply haunt the record’s skeleton.

Although most every instrument is heavily treated enough to make this an obscurely electronic record, Let the Blind… never stagnates. ‘Recent Bedroom’ wears its guitars on its sleeve, offering a slo-mo shoegaze-riff that burrows itself into the front yard where Cox stands, unable to cry. ‘Winter Vacation’ thrives on a soft techno beat that is used to genius effect, while ‘Ativan’s R&B percussion sounds lifted from the most drug-addled 50s recording never released. This is headphone music for swimming heads and bodies lying still.

With his Atlas Sound tour in full swing, Cox has already commenced “Healing Music”; a project that aims to provide original songs for people who are troubled on a first-come-first-serve basis. It’s an undertaking that could occupy the rest of his life, but if Let the Blind… is any indication of music’s healing power, Bradford Cox is the man for the job.

Listen to Atlas Sound here or here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

You Can't Count On Me

For a time in the early 90s, the Counting Crows re-wrote pop music with the release of August and Everything After. Its success seems inevitable looking back at the band’s strong musician-ship (and production by none other than T-Bone Burnett), but remained unexpected due to the legions of fans who found solace in Adam Duritz’s super-personal lyrics. For those who fell for early songs like ‘Sullivan Street’, ‘Perfect Blue Buildings’ and ‘Raining in Baltimore’, The Counting Crows became an aural drug that choreographed personal turmoil into glorious self-righteousness, made flaws and insecurities something to celebrate, and turned pain into something beautiful. It was a badge pinned tightly to Adam’s heart, and over the course of a decade and four albums, we grew through the wrestling of relationships and mortality with his volatile swings; the intense search for identity in Recovering the Satellites, the road-weary poet of This Desert Life, the wiser, self-effacing crooner in Hard Candy.

Counting Crows may be considered Pop Music (and understandably so -- note the embrace from Adult Contemporary Radio in recent years that climaxed with their Academy Award nomination for ‘Accidentally In Love’), but it’s a strand of pop that they gave birth to; a bittersweet sound that radio has repeatedly failed to comprehend. For every red-herring (‘Hangin Around’, ‘American Girls’ and, of course, ‘Mr. Jones’) that served the band well, there’s an inside-joke for the band and their fanbase who understand the heart of their music. It’s in the singles that most people never had a chance to hear; ‘Daylight Fading’, the uncompromising seven minute poetry of ‘Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby’ and a cult-like obsession with ‘Colorblind’. It’s in their albums, each with a distinct focus of sound, orchestrated from a seven-piece group of meticulous musicians. Finally, it’s in their live shows, which are consistently sold-out despite the half-decade since their last studio album.

Last week, ‘You Can’t Count On Me’, the first single for the Counting Crows’ fifth album (Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, due March 25, 2008), was unleashed to record stores, I-Tunes, and the internet at large. I urge anyone with three spare minutes to give it a listen and witness an American band who are creating a legacy that, I fear, will only be appreciated once it’s over.

Listen to New Counting Crows here.

Made in the Dark - Hot Chip

Made in the Dark

Hot Chip
DFA/Astralwerks Records.

SCQ Rating: 71%

It’s good to have Hot Chip back, especially in these dark February days where winter has its claws dug in so deep, it’s easy to believe Spring might never return. Their staccato rhythms and playful dance-rock are the perfect remedies to shake cold off bones with, and that’s exactly what Alexis Taylor & Co. waste no time getting to. “There’s a whole world in there,” he sings, concluding opener ‘Out at the Pictures’, and there’s little doubt Hot Chip have felt that same world pressuring their follow-up to 2006’s The Warning. You can feel the restraint in their breakdowns; where once they would completely let go without fear of overwhelming listeners (as proven by the predecessor’s first track, ‘Careful’), Made in the Dark sounds too deliberate, too planned to really knock our socks off.

‘Shake a Fist’ is big-beat TNT, unstable and undeniable, reclaiming the unpredictable song-structures of The Warning and leading into lead single ‘Ready for the Floor’, a catchy tune too content in its chorus to be anything but pleasant listening. ‘Bendable Poseable’ and ‘One Pure Thought’ feature a raw guitar presence which the band manages to balance well electronically, and these tracks provide the best reasons to stage a dance-athon in your living room this weekend. ‘Touch Too Much’ could be a great follow-up single (its remix potential is enough reason) and ‘Wrestlers’ flexes Hot Chip’s best muscle; the ability to slice warmth and emotion into songs you expect to be pure pop-silliness.

Of course, the most notable distinction on Made in the Dark is the prevalence of slow burners. ‘We’re Looking For A Lot of Love’ fits right in, taking the RPM down at the right moment and chilling like ‘Look After Me’ was in 2006. The title track, with its Van Morrison shuffle (seriously, I’m not reaching) and ‘Whistle for Will’ are even barer, with varied results; the former is a sweet reflection between electro-inspired dance songs, while the latter feels unfinished. Since the only remaining song is also piano-led, short and barren, Made in the Dark, for all its sonic adventures, ends on a particularly weak note.

With the album’s axis off balance and a few songs that border on irritating (B-side in-hiding ‘Hold On’, in particular), Hot Chip should’ve left more on the editing floor, or at the very least, re-thought their second half sequencing. None of this makes Made in the Dark a disappointment, since few could reasonably expect Hot Chip to re-define dance-rock all over again. This will surely satisfy those who kept The Warning on repeat these past two years, but Made in the Dark feels better-suited being played before a night on the town than during it.

Jukebox - Cat Power


Cat Power
Matador Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

My girlfriend and I listened to Jukebox for the first time in relative silence during an hour and a half drive. Between songs, we’d hum, shrug, or occasionally crinkle our noses but overall, it was reminiscent of hearing The Greatest for the first time. A lesser version of Dylan electric but close to Ryan Adams with the Cardinals, I recall The Greatest requiring an arm’s length of buffer room for most Cat Power fans. Chan Marshall’s direction had changed, and for die-hards who swallowed every word she sang, they confused direction with priorities. And as much as I stand by any artist who seeks to try new things, I admit to being apprehensive about Marshall’s dive into Southern soul. To me, that whole Memphis, Soul-Veteran Backing Band cred thing sounded dangerously close to easy listening, Top 40 Radio, and Cat Power didn’t deserve that kind of treatment in my eyes.

Chan disagrees, I think. Are her neurotic, depressed days long behind her? Is she surrounded by yes-men and label execs who encourage her every whim? Worse, is she reading her own press? Although I’m happy to hear her boozing, manic days are behind her, I’d have to nod for all of the above. After all, she’s either believing her own hype or simply treading water between projects, and I truly hope it’s the latter. The Covers Record was tremendous in presenting a volatile artist baring her own soul through the classics of others, and while many fans looked forward to this sequel, it’s a different persona at the mic.

Luckily, Marshall’s voice is as sensuous as ever, blending beautifully with her Dirty Delta Band and revisiting ‘Metal Heart’ with an assuredness that almost unhinges the angst of the original. Still, the strength of Jukebox lies in how an album written by eleven different songwriters can sound so singular in vision and performance. As with the first covers record, Marshall makes most of these her own: ‘Ramblin’ (Wo)man’ finds her right at home, dug deeply into the whiskey-soaked blues, while ‘Silver Stallion’ could be an original if we didn’t know any better.

Then she goes and buys into herself, choosing arrangements (‘Aretha, Sing One For Me’) that hit the Adult Contemporary Bulls-eye. We all know Chan could’ve turned this Motown-flavoured anthem into an introverted meditation had she wanted to, but she wanted to play crooner. And luckily, it’s short (just like unnecessary opener ‘New York’), but the fact that this was deemed inclusion-worthy makes me think Cat Power is reaching for an audience that never heard ‘Hate’ or ‘Nude As the News’. In other instances, the album drags, courtesy of mid-tempo, full-band arrangements that sometimes sound like one-offs (Dylan’s ‘I Believe In You’) and in one predictable case, covering Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Chan proves incapable of doing that timeless song any justice.

I kinda hate myself writing this review, actually. I want to approve her new stream-lined sound without question and call it the maturing of an artist. After all, I would otherwise be asking her to remain miserable and isolated; like those who hoped Bright Eyes would be Peter Pan. These artists grow and find their strengths, but as my last witness, I call upon ‘Song To Bobby’, the only new Cat Power original on Jukebox, to stand and be recognized as the obvious stand-out on this disc. Its sentimentality and arrangement is more memorable than any rendition of Joni, Bob, or Hank (and I’m not one of those die-hards I earlier referred to). It’s simply the best song on this record, even if I’d never heard any incarnation of the covers featured here.

As we cross the skyway toward our hometown, my girlfriend asks me what I think of it, and without considering my words, I state: “it would be a good drinking record if I was drinking by myself.” Sounds about right. Her voice and the blues belong together, and the musicians she’s compiled to accompany her are fit for the job (good ol’ Jim White), but I’m not sure I would listen to this stone-sober yet. If The Greatest took one week to settle in, give Jukebox three – just don’t give up on it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Top Ten Extended Plays

1996. Grunge was on life-support thanks to bands like Bush and Hole, while Alternative-music, ruled by Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan, conquered both transcontinental airwaves as well as the heart/soul of me; a 14 year old wanna-be misfit. But my income was rough at best – $5 to cut the lawn once a week – and since I was a die-hard Pumpkins fan, I became an avid collector of singles and, occasionally, if lucky, EPs.

The EP, also known as the mini-album, was perfect for my newly-born infatuation with recorded music. Like training-wheels for my ears, the EPs (maxi-singles as they were called in the mid-90s) so regularly released by the Smashing Pumpkins were ideal for shaping my interest in how songs should interact in sequence and mood. By the time I was 16 and gainfully employed, I still sought out EPs, as if their shortened running-time was designed for songs that required special privilege and space. These small collections of songs were more intimate in relation to one another… at least to me. And when I hear of news that an artist or band I like is set to release an EP, I recall that teenage excitement all over again.

In celebration of the Extended Play, whether it be album B-sides, a mini-project or tour-recordings, I represent a Top Ten list of essential EPs worth owning. Unfortunately, I unwittingly ordered them #1 through #10, instead of counting them down vice-versa, so I've blown any chance at garnering some anticipation for the top spots. Enjoy.

Honourable Mentions:

Seal Beach EP - The Album Leaf
Dusk Log - Mum
Spitting Feathers - Thom Yorke
Westerns - Pete Yorn

1) Twoism - Boards Of Canada (Top Extended Plays)


Boards of Canada
Warp Records

SCQ Rating: 92%

One of the most elusive and fabled EPs of the modern age, Twoism was considered fiction by many electronic fans in the late 90s. After the critical success of Music has the Right to Children, fan speculation began to grow over the limited pressing of Twoism, a debut EP, which received a distribution of only 100 copies. Many fans searched Ebay in vein, while at least one copy reportedly traded hands for no less than 800 POUNDS.

Well, Warp Records finally remastered and released Twoism world-wide in 2002; a year that, in retrospect, I recall as pioneering my interest in electronic music. This 8 track mini-album sounds gruff in comparison to their later records (particularly the sea-sick ‘Iced Cooly’ and the drumNbass-inspired ‘Basefree’), but the nostalgia of playing Twoism over and over in my tiny, university room and feeling that nobody has ever listened to it before makes it my personal favourite BoC release.

2) Cherry Tree - The National (Top Extended Plays)

Cherry Tree EP

The National
Beggars Banquet Records.

SCQ Rating: 90%

My first-ever listen to The National was the Cherry Tree EP, from the elegy of ‘Wasp Nest’ to the barely-there ‘A Reasonable Man’, at 3am after a drunken walk across town. I left Zangief’s after a get-together and decided to carve a new route home through a misty park. Twenty minutes later, I was lost; I had confused parks and spent an additional hour wading through puddles and fallen leaves. I came home ragged but exhilarated, and fell deeply for ‘All the Wine’ and Beringer’s baritoned wit.

When I mentioned how the Extended Play seemed formatted for songs that required particular attention and sequencing, Cherry Tree EP is the exact model I had in mind. Its seven songs (even the two separate live tracks) are sewn by the same autumnal mood; each song venting for the time and space that would be emotionally overwhelming if placed on a ten to twelve track LP.

3) Loser Anthems - Matthew Good Band (Top Extended Plays)

Loser Anthems

Matthew Good Band
Universal Records.

SCQ Rating: 91%

While The Audio of Being’s reported year-long mixing process might make it the most sonically adventurous MGB album, Loser Anthems, released five months earlier, afforded the band a stress-free opportunity to explore the freedom of studio-time. 'Flashdance 2’ is not only one of their finest songs, it’s also inexplicably their poorest mix of any record. That it’s followed up by the crystal-clean ambience of ‘The Man From Harold Wood’, a song that is essentially the come-down for ‘Flashdance 2’ only makes it stranger.

Following the fist-pumping arena-rock of ‘My Life as a Circus Clown’, Loser Anthems turns into Matt Good’s personal experiment. As stated in an interview, Matt became interested in recording empty space. He’d take microphones out into the studio halls, prop them by open windows, and their stillness clearly occupies the EP’s last three songs. ‘Flight Recorder from Viking 7’ is an isolated, droning tale of a lost astronaut (or perhaps, Good himself who was dealing with the pressures of fame at that time), and features Holly McNarland in an unexpectedly great contribution. ‘Life Beyond the Minimum Safe Distance’ is one of the best pieces Good has written, and last track ‘The Fine Art of Falling Apart’ is recorded as a first take; a song written and meant to be sung just once. While it may lack the shimmer of what would become the MGB’s last album, its grainy experimentation makes Loser Anthems one of the finest Extended Plays I own.

4) Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do - Sigur Ros (Top Extended Plays)

Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do

Sigur Ros
Fatcat Records

SCQ Rating: 90%

I don’t think there’s an EP that can compare with the rush of memories I recall when listening to Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do. It’s indescribable and frustratingly so; I cannot pinpoint how these three lyric-less pieces can bring each of my senses back to the Spring of 2004, when Sigur Ros quietly dropped this oddity into stores. Besides being the perfect season to blind-side Sigur fans with ambient codas of piano, synth, and music-box, each of these tracks act as a web, stitching the threads of old memories and leaving the listener with a 20 minute whirlwind memento.

This recording is also special because it shows an impeccable band working at their most experimental. While these pieces were written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2003, I can’t imagine many fans of this EP wanting to trade in their personal interpretation to see how the music was actually used.

5) Moving Careful - Hayden (Top Extended Plays)

Moving Careful

Sonic Unyon Records

SCQ Rating: 82%

It is often said that the 30-somethings who ensure that every Hayden show (up to and including the current In Field and Town tour) is sold-out, were once the teenaged sadsacks who attached their misery to his delicate, 4-track recordings of regret. While I’m sure the Toronto songwriter has garnered a healthy set of fans since the late 90s, I don’t disagree that most Hayden fans are in it for life.

Moving Careful was recorded during stops of his first World Tour and are the first songs to capture his softer voice, creaking like the comfort of an old house, far removed from the angry wail that attracted many to his Sonic Unyon debut. Recognition of one’s talent often leads to increased confidence and bolder music, yet Hayden had managed to crawl further into his shell. Keeping his lo-fi skills intact, this EP was performed in the backs of Chinese restaurants, in hotels, and as heard in the magical ‘Middle of July’, a field of crickets. My favourite record of 1997.

6) Fluorescent Grey - Deerhunter (Top Extended Plays)

Fluorescent Grey

Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 86%

After the droned-out bliss and chaos of their breakthrough LP Cryptograms, my first listen of the un-processed piano keys opening this EP came as a shock. Like Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia or an approaching storm, it’s a haunting melody which builds into their most accessible song-cycle yet.

Both the title track and ‘Mr. Glass’ feature female vocals alongside those of Bradford Cox, which delivers an androgynous allure to Cox’s best lyrics. ‘Like New’ picks up where Cryptograms left off, featuring the delay-drenched chords we’ve come to expect, while ‘Wash It Off’ is the pulsing rocker this EP needed to feel well-rounded.

Recorded during the mixing stage of their album, it makes complete sense that the band included this EP as the fourth side of Cryptograms 2LP vinyl. Fluorescent Grey has given us a peek into what Deerhunter can create from all that noise.

7) MOUNT EERIE - The Microphones (Top Extended Plays)


The Microphones
K Records

SCQ Rating: 80%

Where to begin with the unforgettable Mount Eerie? First off, it’s long enough to be a full-length despite its five tracks, the EP name alone would inspire Phil Elvrum to replace The Microphones as his moniker, and best of all, it’s a concept album about a boy who travels to conquer the mysterious mountain of his hometown, dies, and travels the solar system. If you think I’ve spoiled the plot, unbelievably, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

With various K Record colleagues playing the roles of several reoccurring characters, Mount Eerie feels more like a full-blown production than an afterthought EP. Hauntingly original and challenging, this is a rite of passage for both protagonist and listener.

8) Logistics and Navigation - The London Apartments (Top Extended Plays)

Logistics and Navigation EP

The London Apartments
Beggars Banquet Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

Indie-tronic wunderkid Justin Langlois, of Windsor Ontario, named himself after a sign he could see from his residence window. As the story goes, his plaintiff whisper originated from having paper-thin walls and awfully bitchy neighbours. This four-track EP of most recent songs was compiled for Beggars Banquet and is likely the most widely available of his material so far.

His angelic sighs are sure to turn heads upon first listen, but meshed with laptop beats and warm guitar tones this creates a stunning set of muffled daydreams. ‘Summer Takes All My Time’ is a perfect first-listen, sounding both terribly depressed and uplifting for those days you can’t be bothered knowing how to feel about anything. There is something so healing about Langlois' compositions, it should only come delivered with a prescription.

9) Babylon Rewound - Thievery Corporation (Top Extended Plays)

Babylon Rewound

Thievery Corporation
ESL Music

SCQ Rating: 76%

A staple for the down-tempo lounge crowds, Thievery Corporation were pioneers at blending the rhythm and soul of international music into their relaxed beats. Their sponge-like interest in traditional music from India to Jamaica culminated in 2004’s The Richest Man in Babylon, a collection which some critics panned due to its whoring of “world” music. Those who agree with that assessment might have to argue among each other over Babylon Rewound; a remix record that continues finding inspiration from exotic styles, but this time, focuses on spinning the eclecticism of ‘Richest Man…’ into geniuine Rasta grooves.

Although the remixes (“rewound” by Kid Loco, Voidd, and the band itself) promote themselves a dub versions (like the Massive Attack VS Mad Professor album a decade earlier), these songs are most confidently reggae dancehall. Like many EPs, Babylon Rewound is a curiousity – a stop-gap release between albums – but it’s also a tightly cohesive group of quality remixes that in many ways trump the original album cuts. With no shortage of steel drum and Kingston rhythm, this is an ideal record to dust off on days like today when the winter blahs are creeping in.

10) Follow the Lights - Ryan Adams & the Cardinals (Top Extended Plays)

Follow the Lights

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Lost Highway Records

SCQ Rating: 73%

A peace-offering after the marketing coup that kept the Cardinals’ name off the cover of Easy Tiger, Follow the Lights finds the band reunited with Adams, showcasing new material plus Cardinal versions of older material. The new tracks continue Adams recent admiration for traditional song-writing, and finally provide us with a studio rendition of live favourite ‘My Love for You is Real’. The title track and ‘Blue Hotel’ confirm that this is a collection far looser, less-strictly produced than its LP predecessor.

The top-notch highlight, ‘This Is It (Cardinals Version)’, proves both how versatile much of that RockNRoll material is, and how naturally a band like the Cardinals can compliment it. The last two Cardinal Versions, despite sounding great, leave much to be desired, and it would’ve been far more interesting to hear them perform, like ‘This Is It’, older material from Ryan Adams’ early solo material. 'The Drugs Not Working' or 'World War 24' as done by the Cardinals? Could've, Should've.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Curve of the Earth - Attack in Black

The Curve of the Earth

Attack in Black
Dine Alone Records

SCQ Rating: 83%

One of the biggest issues I have with my job is that I have to work next to a radio. In most cases, I consider myself lucky that the radio is one of the few things I can gripe about, and while the root of my irritation deals with their formatting and the general corruption of modern day FM airwaves, bands like Attack in Black have never helped. ‘Young Leaves’, the lead single from their 2007 debut ‘Marriage’, would’ve been entirely forgettable if it hadn’t been playing twice an hour on Edge 102 all summer straight. Blame it on Can-Con regulations all you like, but there is only one singer in the history of rock and roll who could sing a chorus of “Na Na Na Na”’s repeatedly and pull it off. Daniel Romano and Spencer Burton, needless to say, are no Van Morrison.

So when my friend wrote me about a record he overheard in a vinyl shoppe, and how upon inquiring the band behind it, received Attack in Black as the answer, he engaged in a fit of self-abuse and existential crisis. After all, that band appeared intent on pigeon-holing itself as the latest Canadian rock band featuring no visible style or personality. They’ve thrown a curve-ball indeed, then, with their I-Tunes and Vinyl only LP, The Curve of the Earth.

‘I’m Going to Forget’ opens with some disarmingly simple and pretty acoustic chords, which when paired with shuffling percussion and tired but sweet vocals creates a poignant song about how time unravels memories we hoped to hold in every detail. It’s the first in a collection of hushed back-porch odes that are best heard on your own, or in the company of close friends while quietly breaking down a 24-case. Think about the quieter material on Eric's Trip's 'Love Tara' and you're in the right ballpark.

While first listens can occasionally teeter on the brink of monotony, the varied vocalists (each band member lends their respective pipes), some unexpected backward-singing, and the general brevity of most songs overcome any threat of acoustic overdose. The electric bombast of ‘You’re Such an Only Child’ plus the use of banjo and other organic instrumentation (is that a kazoo on ‘Sparrow’!?!) also keep proceedings unpredictable. I only wish more bands would take this kind of initiative and offer different sides of their sound. Not only does this release make Attack in Black suddenly matter to me, it also justifies giving the punk-influenced mood of ‘Marriage’ another chance.

Listening to the sparse beauty of songs like ‘Rope’ or ‘Morning Bird/Water Line’ make me long for Spring when I can take a record like this out for a walk in the rain and pay no mind to where I’m going. Releasing this collection on vinyl requires no explanation once you’ve listened to its 12 songs (included are access to the album MP3s), and it’s one more good reason to fix the belt of that old record player.

Chromophobia - Gui Boratto


Gui Boratto
Kompact Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

2007 will quite likely be remembered as a banner year for dance records, with several managing to crossover into the inner circle of indie-rock for all the kids who sought a beat more potent than ‘Sound of Silver’. No foul on LCD – that album is worthy of all its acclaim – but its songwriting remained very much indebted to Mr. Murphy’s decade-spanning vinyl collection, and for those in need of hypnotic grooves for the dance-purist, chances are Kompact delivered them. The Field’s ‘From Here We Go Sublime’ stole the limelight and introduced the Kompact roster to an entirely new audience, but second prize had to go to Gui Boratto, the dark horse, for this set of 13 electronic compositions which seem entirely unafraid of being colorful.

‘Scene 1’ scores an uplifting soundtrack in the vein of Ulrich Schnauss before delving suddenly into ominous synth-work. From that atmospheric opener, the Brazilian follows with several minimal house tracks which succeed in moving you physically, if not emotionally. While this is primed for the dancefloor, Boratto gives plenty for the home-listening headphone crowd. Take the high-speed ‘Gate 4’, which at the 3min20sec mark, begins to decompose; its melody literally melting over the keyboard before re-compiling itself. That Gui makes his living as an architect should come as no surprise when witnessing the detail of these songs; his focus on texturing tones and crafting full-bodied melodies from unassuming loops is half the fun of listening in.

At over seventy minutes, Chromophobia stretches itself too thin by the first five song mark, which is frustrating when the album’s best material crowds the back end. ‘Terminal’ feels unfinished next to its running-mates, while ‘Shebang’ sounds like it was meant for a late nineties trance record. Starting fresh with ‘Mala Strana’ – another atmospheric place-holder which manages to act as an intermission before the second act – the record kicks into high gear, warming us into pastoral electronica with ‘Acrostico’, then introducing some guitar for the dangerous pulse of ‘Xilo’. By the time we reach songs like ‘Beautiful Life’ (the only track featuring vocals and a fav among the blogger-community) and the chaotic but lovely ‘Hera’, our ears are nearly exhausted.

The down-tempo closing number, curiously titled ‘The Verdict’, actually succeeds by allowing reflection-time on the album’s highs and lows. Despite Boratto’s obvious talent and several memorable moments, the few out-of-place tracks make Chromophobia play out like a compilation; more fun to navigate and find favourites than to hear beginning through end.

Rather Ripped - Sonic Youth

Rather Ripped

Sonic Youth
Geffen Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

“Direct action gets the goods,” claims a spray-painted building featured in the lyric-less, graffiti-smeared liner notes of 'Rather Ripped'. And thank heavens; after twenty five years together, Sonic Youth still practice what they preach. From Kim Gordon’s anthemic wail in the opening bars of ‘Reena’, these no-wave pioneers waste little time in the absence of casual member/ fifth wheel Jim O’Rourke, spinning a collection of familiar S.Y. trademarks into invigorated, not recycled, territory. Yes, the odd guitar tunings, the distortion breakdowns, the so-ugly-it’s-pretty lyrics are all in attendance, but where 2004's Sonic Nurse felt bloated on occasion, Rather Ripped succeeds in its focus on raw songwriting over sonic eccentricities.

‘Incinerate’, which owes its head-shaking pulse to the notorious interweaving of their dual guitarists, displays this exercise in compression as their jams and excessive tendencies of past records are compacted to fit naturally within a five-minute time-frame (the exquisite ‘Jams Run Free’, although ironically titled, also complies to this punctuality). Aside from being a pristine guitar record, 'Rather Ripped' is also the closest they’ve come to full-fledged maturity. The Lou Reed-esque loneliness of ‘Do You Believe in Rapture?’ has lead guitar/singer Thurston Moore begging for second chances, while ‘Turquoise Boy’ and ‘The Neutral’ find Kim Gordon’s once tough-girl angst now romantically (and melodically) earnest. Thank you, Sonic Youth; the goods have been received.

Nightcrawler - Pete Yorn


Pete Yorn
Universal Records

SCQ Rating: 79%

Anyone who read a rock magazine in the winter of 2001 might remember Pete Yorn. He was declared an ‘Artist to Watch’ by Rollingstone, who gave his debut ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ a four star review. He was the newest prodigy; a drummer who attained a major label contract during the last days of the old way: by performing a song before wealthy executives who by now are likely unemployed. So yes… a lot happened between 2001 and the release of Nightcrawler; the least of which likely being Yorn’s 2003 follow-up, Day I Forgot. The record displayed less variety than his ambitious debut, and perhaps as a knee-jerk response to the sophomore’s title, everyone forgot about Pete Yorn.

Three and a half years later, ‘Nightcrawler’ takes up ‘MFTMA’s confidence and delivers a collection of pop, country, semi-electronic and straight-up meat and potatoes rock. His flashiest record to date, ‘Nightcrawler’’s heavy production allows Yorn to take more risks than his first two albums combined. While notoriously difficult producer Micheal Beinhorn proves to be a trusted ally in the Yorn camp, adding his Eno-approved sheen for some new-wave electronic flourishes, it’s a polish that doesn’t come off entirely spot-free. Years in production and with no less than five producers in tow, some tunes (especially ‘Alive’ and the Warren Zevon cover ‘Splendid Isolation’) feel sonically out of place against the Beinhorn sessions, which accumulates half of the album material.

Having heard many of the B-Sides, I can’t help but daydream about how Nightcrawler would’ve sounded had it consisted exclusively of Yorn’s work with Beinhorn. Their dark pop explorations, from grumbling guitar and looming synth undertones on ‘Vampyre’ and ‘Same Thing’, could’ve unified this record into a very interesting statement.

Even though Yorn seems to have shied away from alienating anyone by recycling some old ideas, ‘Nightcrawler’ does not suffer from it. ‘For Us’ may be his best radio-ready single since ‘Crystal Village’, but any number of these cuts could’ve contended for chart status. From the Dixie Chick-backed romance of ‘The Man’ to the shoegaze-borrowed ‘How Do You Go On’, Nightcrawler (and his subsequent year and a half tour promoting it) shows that Pete Yorn isn’t content to be forgotten just yet.

Prism of Eternal Now - White Rainbow

Prism of Eternal Now

White Rainbow
Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

2007 was not my year for finding quality ambient records. Sure, I was caught up in more beat-oriented efforts from the Morr Music label, and yeah, I missed the boat on Stars of the Lid’s apparently brilliant double-album. I’ll swallow some of the blame. On the other hand, my lack of ambient bliss wasn’t for lack of trying. As curious or lovely as releases by RadicalFashion or Eluvium may have been, it’s disappointing to bring them home and feel that hollow sensation when you slowly discover…they’re not ambient (at least, not in any way Mr. Eno would’ve agreed with, and let’s face it, he knew the term when he coined it). So while this year offered no shortage of avant-noise and instrumental albums, what I lacked was found in Adam Forkner AKA White Rainbow.

I had sold a few old records and was determined to find something to show for my newly acquired dollars. Selling old compact discs, even if you never planned on listening to them again, only feels right when that money will go towards a record far cooler than the ones you gave up. I walked in search of a record shoppe I’d visited once, but it was with a friend who led the way, and truthfully, I hadn’t been paying attention to where we were going. The Christmas season was in full bloom and by the time I found SoundScapes, I was mentally exhausted from the stress of surging, shopping crowds and the guilt of shopping for myself. And it was the first album I saw when I walked in. I pressed play and within moments was drawn to the calm, pastoral waves of ‘Middle’. A half-hour of looking at other records wouldn’t succeed in steering my interest, as I walked out with the first record I saw.

While the majority of 'Prism of Eternal Now' boasts a polished haze bordering on New Age-y, there are occasional meanderings which begin to grate on the ears. 'For Terry', the one track I wouldn't have minded being left to the cutting-room floor, noodles aimlessly for six and a half minutes and admittedly feels far longer. Luckily, the four songs to follow are each impeccable: 'Mystic Prism' combines Forkner's love for African rhythm alongside his blistering guitar work, while 'Warm Clicked Fruit' and 'Guitars' showcase his ability to loop tiny textures into subtle moods. Best of all, 'April 25th, 11:14PM' is perhaps my favourite ambient track of 2007; shy, romantic, and foreboding in a way I haven't heard since the last Godspeed! record.

Through its unhinged ambient codas and soft electronics, Prism of Eternal Now pretty much encompasses what I was hoping Fridge’s new record would be: playful but withdrawn, at peace with its melodies but always shifting focus. Its tracks run together so smoothly, you’d find it easy to ignore what a mixed bag it really is; touches of afro-beat, post-rock and electronica bridged together in a cloud of shimmering ambience that makes Christmas shopping feel calm.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Good Morning, Avalanche.

That first recognition of consciousness is where I'm at right now. That sudden gasp for air and the memory of the last thing I saw, in the light of day, before I was buried. SCQ is under so many records that I'm clueless where to begin. So, like anyone suddenly buried, I'm clawing at the first things I find. Random records from the past few years, to start things off.

In the coming week, I'm hoping to have a feature or two prepared. One will delve into the significance and glory of the Extended Play, or EP, while the other will focus on Germany's endlessly-awesome Electronica scene. I'm especially excited about the latter feature since I'm really my only friend when it comes to German Electronica. There are some amazing labels and records to discuss, and introducing a few to anyone interested is the reason SCQ is here (this week).

Admittedly, despite my blogger ambitions, I'm not one to spend hours at the computer. To match, I think my fellow skeleton Zangief might be dead... or at least buried deeper than I am. So SCQ is currently growing as most weeds do: nothing special on the surface, but roots spreading thick underground. Write us every ten minutes.

Love SCQ.

29 - Ryan Adams


Ryan Adams
Lost Highway Records

SCQ Rating: 75%

A slew of albums (eight of which legitimate records, the rest orphaned/subject of trailed-off sentences) and twice as many personas, Ryan Adams has accumulated a legacy, unstable as it may be, comparable in both talent and profligacy to the aging songwriter generation he muses after. Throw in a few public meltdowns, several tour cancellations due to poor health, a commercial breakthrough, its inevitable backlash, an orchestra-pit collapse and a ton of reported substance abuse, and you have five years in a career which has given birth to enough material to warrant such comparisons to any Young or Westerberg. So you can lend the once-deemed "New Dylan" a seat if he sounds tired on 29, his third record of the year, as this is where one suspects that art is imitating life.

One glance at the blotted ink-stains and typewriter errors found throughout the liner notes reminds me of a common Ryan Adams gauntlet my mind occasionally throws down: is Ryan Adams a genius giving into lazy song-writing and jackassery? Or are all these rough edges and head-scratching, 'is-he-serious' lyrics part of his genius? When he sings "And I worry about you / Why, because you want me to," is it an honest assessment of a complicated relationship, or more of the aforementioned flippancy? More to the point, are the blotted ink-stains and typewriter errors committed purposefully or is Mr. Adams just rushing for the finish line? With most artists, I think the consensus would lie in the former. However with Ryan Adams, it's a rare mystique in his otherwise cartoon-worthy over-exposure; the artistic merit beneath a defensive jokester.

Regardless of which side you're on, neither will justify 'The Sadness'; a Mexican-Standoff complete with galloping guitars stolen from the Three Amigos soundtrack and worse, Adams screaming "Arrrrrriiiiba" to imaginary horses that will lead him away from, that's right, the Sadness. That this song shares a running time with some of Adam's most affecting work is a further shame, as much of 29's REAL sadness is tender and evocative in its instrumental and lyrical detail. 'Strawberry Wine' is a pastoral gem of minimalist acoustics; a simple serenade of guitar and banjo to complement one of Adams' many richly disturbing stories on display. "Starlite Diner' and the rather Morrissey-inspired title of "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part' further imbed an understanding of Adams' talent by stripping everything but his voice and a small band of instruments (aided by Ethan John's pristine production).

In fact, the regrettable moments on this record are the songs where he shows no regret; when he abandons his thematic passage of claustrophobic loneliness in lieu of, well, jackassery ('29'). And for an album consisting of only nine songs, the few missteps admittedly leave a larger smear on the record as a cohesive whole. No denying it, 29 is certainly the comedown record of his catalogue and, possibly, the wintry close of his formidable years. Here’s to the next five.

Zeitgeist - Smashing Pumpkins


Smashing Pumpkins
Warner Music

SCQ Rating: 63%

The year 2000 was a very long time ago. So long, in fact, that I can’t blame most people for losing track of what Machina actually sounded like. Even I, a once massive Smashing Pumpkin fan who collected every import and b-side available, had to reach into memory to recall the wall of sound synths and Black Sabbath tributes which collected the mundane gist of the Pumpkin’s sixth and thought-to-be last record together. Well, it was and it wasn’t – make no mistake, the absence of James and Darcy officially make Zeitgeist a product of Smashing Pumpkins version2.0 – but to make my case against the paint-by-number critics who all made quick comparisons: this sounds as much like Machina as Machina sounded like Gish.

Say what you will about the discography of the Smashing Pumpkins (first generation, circa 1989 through 2000), even the most steadfast Pumpkin-haters had to at least surrender some understanding of why they were so popular. Even Machina, for all its obvious weaknesses, held a pocketful of excellent songs to add to the SP catalog (Stand Inside Your Love and Try, Try, Try), and Zeitgeist is no different in that respect. Anyone who enjoyed Siamese Dream can feel a nostalgic softening when listening to Chamberlain’s percussive talents in the opener ‘Doomsday Clock’, and rock radio around the world would be deaf to exclude ‘That’s the Way (My Love Is)’ from the same airwaves that welcomed ‘1979’ so whole-heartedly. These examples, as well as the massive hit ‘Tarantula’ prove that Corgan remains capable of writing hit songs and channeling his inner talent through such a preposterous ego. However, that doesn’t mean that Zeitgeist isn’t the Smashing Pumpkins’ least interesting album.

When news of the SP reunion dropped jaws all over the western front, I recall feeling confident that the band could move forward, unfettered by the absence of James Iha and Darcy. And while I still believe BC and JC (as they refer to themselves of late) are the most essential contributors to the Pumpkin sound, the lack of depth in much of Zeitgeist offers a healthy difference in opinion. Gone are the soft and hazy ballads, the psychedelic instrumentals, the androgynous anger that crowned them kings of a genre as carelessly titled as Alternative. In fact, the most exciting moments I found on this record were the seconds I heard the introduction of tinkering piano or, basically, any instrument that isn’t a guitar. While these moments are extremely rare over the course of the album’s 52 minutes, they do offer a hint of atmosphere to songs like ‘Neverlost’ and ‘For God and Country’, which are all the better for it than ‘(Come On) Let’s Go!’; a brainless rocker which, sadly, gives away all the lyrical content with its title.

Aiming to make a rock record and succeeding is easily the band’s least ambitious statement so far, and with lousy album art and grade-eight caliber lyrics, you might find yourself disappointed as often as you are surprised. Best to keep this in mind: Machina was no Abbey Road and Zeitgeist does little to destroy the SP legacy. It’s better than it could’ve been, and that is better than nothing.

Dumb Luck - Dntel

Dumb Luck

Sub Pop Records

SCQ Rating: 68%

Postal Service. There. For all my avid web-murking in search of details to Dntel’s six-year-in-the-making sophomore album, there was no escaping the mention and subsequent comparison to Jimmy Tamborello’s more famous, Ben Gibbard-attached project. What Dumb Luck sounded like, whether the songs were worth listening to or not, seemed far less important than how the album was generally less upbeat, less dance-worthy, and therefore less interesting than that 2003 indietronic phenomenon, Give Up. And even though they’re spot on in their assessment that Dumb Luck is more contemplative, more concerned with deconstructing its song layers than making us want to make out with each other, these people are still morons because they’ve never listened to Life is Full of Possibilities.

While his near-perfect electronic-backing for The Postal Service is certainly his bread and butter, Jimmy Tamborello’s ambitions stretch beyond the average indie-dance DJ. As a constantly recording artist in no less than six acts, one would require a hefty rock to ignore his non-Postal contributions to the American electronic scene. His Plug-Research debut, Life is Full of Possibilities, remains a landmark IDM album, and a far more relevant model for comparison with Dumb Luck.

An immediate break from the past is announced in the opening song and title track, as the layers of noise are ushered in by the vocals of Tamborello himself. Modest yet appropriate, his voice tries to bridge the synthetic swellings and sudden acoustic retreats that never find their groove. The Lali Puna-assisted ‘I’d Like to Know’ also buzzes with promise, but spends the majority of its running time in the warm-up stage. Sadly, it’s a condition that reappears several times throughout the following eight star-studded songs; its layering up and tearing apart of sonic details approaches renders many of these songs flawed, despite some impressive moments abound.

Direction seems to be the key with this album, and luckily, Tamborello offers as many compelling jewels as unsure explorations. ‘To A Fault’ should’ve been where this album started; staccato guitar strums on pace with some sophisticated beats, keyboard flourishes and a far-off forest of vocals contributed by Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste. ‘Roll On’ is further proof that Jenny Lewis’ songwriting ambition may be on cruise-control, yet she watches her back by sounding as enchanting as ever. Finally, Conor Oberst delivers ‘Breakfast in Bed’; the emotional punch of the album and a worthy second listen for anyone who swore they hated Bright Eyes the first time around. Possibly the best morning-after-a-one-night-stand song ever, Oberst coos gently as if his fling is still sleeping on the pillow next to him.

From there, Dumb Luck closes with ‘Dreams’, an instrumental which proves Jimmy can still carry the torch on his own. Due to some exciting contributions, the amount of hired help on this album doesn’t bother me. I’m more skeptical about how the album would’ve sounded (and if it had been finished at all) without them.

Sky Blue Sky - Wilco

Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch Records

SCQ Rating: 72%

1996: Band divides fan-base with their ambitious double album, Being There, which found a devoted following while pissing off every Uncle Tupelo fan in America.

2000: Band divides fan-base with a sun-kissed exploration of Beatles-inspired pop and lyrics about abusing, killing one’s lover.

2002: Jim O’Rourke promises Jeff Tweedy that hiring him as producer will ensure Wilco being booted from Warner Records. He wasn’t kidding and the end result, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, delivers a fallout that befuddles music execs and inspires millions. Oh yeah, and divides fans.

2004: As quickly as it came, Tweedy and Co. abandon their electronic art-country moniker and release A Ghost is Born; a record largely obsessed with the guitar solo. Some fans are left frustrated while the rest eat it up.

Between and after these years, the band also committed themselves to two volumes of under-the-rug Woody Gunthrie covers and a live record that despite being awesome, is inconsequential in the way most live albums tend to be by mandate.

This shamefully brief and self-serving chronology is to illustrate something about both Wilco and Wilco fans: it’s impossible to please everyone. And Wilco’s indifference to fan support has accumulated a discography of nearly unrivaled comparison (as far as contemporary American bands are concerned), where each album is a new exploration and challenge for both songwriters and open-minded fans.

So strangely enough, it was an uneasy sign when everyone and their grandmother adored Sky Blue Sky. Like the opening guitar-plucking of ‘Either Way’ is as welcoming as the Ice Cream truck’s jingle on a hot summer’s day, the record felt so effortless, so pretty, so laidback in its optimism and melancholy. And like everyone else, I was excited, asking friends if they had heard the new Wilco yet and when they shake their heads, widening my eyes to silently suggest “Well, maybe you should.” I still think everyone should, if only to hear the 1, 2, 3 punch of the first three songs. Alternately resigned and occasionally tense, these opening tracks are impressive additions to the Wilco catalogue.

After the Thin Lizzy-esque triple guitar climax of Impossible Germany, Sky Blue Sky takes it down a few notches on the title track, a lovely acoustic number that would be easy to dismiss if it wasn’t so damn easy to listen to. And that’s where us fans get all divided up again, because this pretty ambivalence (outlined by Tweedy himself as he sings “I survived/That’s good enough for me”) dominates many of these following songs. It’s still a Wilco album, and a respectable one at that, but the slowly unraveling song structures and cryptic lyrics have been largely omitted this time around.

When the band decides to shake up their sound from the acoustic laments, like on, um, “Shake It Off”, the band misses the mark so badly it makes listening to this record beginning through end nearly impossible. Any shortcomings before or after this song are mere suggestions -- details I would’ve preferred elaborated upon or left out – yet in both melody and timing, “Shake It Off” is the aural embodiment of that feeling you get right before vomiting.

It’s a record so charmingly quaint that critiquing its weak spots makes one feel like they’re throwing rocks at a younger sibling. It’s sweet and harmless, so just play nice.

SCQ Open Letter

Dear Friends of SCQ,

For those who aren’t aware, I’ve been building a webpage over the past two months that focuses on a semi-wide range of music. I ‘ve never been very efficient with computers, and despite this being my first blog (or maybe because of it), I’m enjoying myself immensely.

As anyone who knows me can likely attest, I love discussing music just as much as I love listening to others discuss it. This is an open letter to anyone interested (and by anyone, I mean you) in contributing a story to SCQ about any album that has particular meaning to you. Which album immediately just came to mind? Any? For many of you, I’d wager a parade of them is clouding your eyes as you read this.

First thing’s first: this is nothing to sweat about. If you’re busy, tired or plain uninterested, no worries. There is obviously no deadline, no rules to write within, no pressure to make poetry. We each have those albums; ones that instantly take you back to when you first heard it, ones that soundtracked an amazing summer, a relationship, a trip, a person, a daily commute, memory or mood. Those records very much have an aura to them that time only magnifies, and whether it’s rock, country, electronica, classical or polka: if it means something to you, it means something to SCQ.

Put that album on and write about hearing it for the first time. Write about the songs, lyrics; whatever struck a personal chord with you. The raw re-telling of why a particular record means something to you is what I’m after. Write two paragraphs or write about three different albums. Make it funny, serious, long, short, anonymous, complicated, whatever. As soon as responses begin trickling in, I’ll post one every month or so in a separate column. If you have any friends or family who would be interested in contributing, feel free to include them. I’m sure I’ll be writing a few.

I've found no websites that specialize in real-life testimonials about music, and considering how a song can bring people together so effortlessly, I think it would make for an interesting column. Would you be up for it?

Reply to theskeletoncrewquarterly@gmail.com with any questions, accusations or complaints.
And visit SCQ Homepage or SCQ Reviews when you’re bored.