Sunday, August 31, 2008

So September...

Well, SCQ Faithfuls...

We've officially found ourselves in the last quarter of 2008. Although it may feel far off, December is but a stone's throw away once we've reached the end of summer, and because SCQ always has its eyes set squarely on the future, year-end preparations are beginning now.

Over the past week or so, whether at work, on city buses or at headquarters, I've begun sorting out SCQ's Top 50 Songs of 2008 and SCQ's Top 20 Albums of the Year. For last year's, I started the process in April - which, yes... it's a bit overzealous - but even so, I have some catching up to do. And now, with nearly a year's worth of blog experience under my belt, I promise something far more attractive than last year's archaic Top 20 Albums... list. Shame.

Speaking of attractive changes, you may note that the SCQ homepage has been tweaked, generally dispelling the white/red combo that escaped my to-do list for so long and adding some more relaxing shades to the mix.

Good luck in the last quarter!

Love SCQ.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow

The Seldom Seen Kid

Fiction Records.

SCQ Rating: 56%

I own every Elbow album but I don't know how it happens. Each time I read about an imminent Elbow recording, a metronome act that occurs every three years, I feel compelled to read any upcoming details out of some posthumous respect. At some point, the band that once had me reveling in such intermittently brilliant releases like Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands became predictable, passe even, to the point where I believed myself to have grown beyond their blend of sorry Britrock and prog flourishes. So then why do I own 2005's Leaders of the Free World? And now The Seldom Seen Kid? As time, critics and myself have proven, Guy Garvey and the Elbow crew don't get the respect they deserve, often considered "the drinking man's Coldplay" when much of their discography is brilliantly unique. Yet with each approaching release, I've found myself doubting them still. Leaders of the Free World was a brash guitar record and a worthy entry into SCQ's Best Records of 2005. The Seldom Seen Kid, however, might be my Id's long-awaited 'I told you so'.

Having proven that they can create epic prog-rock, still-life melancholy and bar-room rockers with each respective album, it's almost self-explanatory why Elbow, despite many incredible moments, have never made an addictively listenable record, front to back. The Seldom Seen Kid sees an attempt to reign these marginalized strengths into one conducive whole, and early buzz claimed, like all Elbow records before it, that this was their masterpiece.

Better keep on trying. The Seldom Seen Kid still boasts the off-kilter arrangements and lovely harmonies that make an Elbow album such, but lacking the dark undercurrent that infected Asleep in the Back's tone, the wide-eyed romance of Cast of Thousands, and the bite of Leaders of the Free World, Elbow have castrated nearly every hook they possess. Take 'The Bones of You', a semi-love song without any longing or interest, or 'On a Day Like This', which featuring a Gershwin-borrowed orchestra and rides that sap all the way to the six and a half minute mark! For a band as well-versed in mid-tempo rock as Elbow is, The Seldom Seen Kid is plodding; dull songs embellished to disguise themselves and, worse, uninteresting lyrics. Yes, Guy Garvey, the man I once claimed could graffiti any of his lyrics on a wall and it would look amazing, has faltered several times over here (when "Holy cow, I love your eyes" is the heavily repeated chorus of your record's first single, I suggest going on hiatus).

As always, there are highlights but unlike before, where we were treated to unnervingly beautiful moments, here they merely hold our attention. 'Weather to Fly' proves that Elbow have maintained some of their ambient touch from Cast of Thousands, while 'An Audience with the Pope', despite being about nothing of grand interest, is perfectly arranged and classic Elbow, from the tip-toeing piano lines to Garvey's weathered croon. Best of all is 'Grounds for Divorce', which is the name of a drink Garvey created, and stands to be the only track that inspires energetic response with its soccer-ready vocal chants and vicious guitar work.

Until 2011, when the next Elbow album will likely fall into my lap somehow, I trust the boys will wrestle back from what I consider to be their first low point. The Seldom Seen Kid contains enough potential that it could've been great had someone else arranged and performed it, but I'm not about to start giving Elbow any excuses. Mid-tempo, sorrow-filled Brit-rock is their territory; let's not pretend they aren't capable of it.

Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Ros

Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust

Sigur Ros
XL Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

Last year's Heim/Hvarf collection, plus the accompanying release of Sigur Ros' first live document, Heima, found Sigur Ros where many bands are who issue stop-gap material: at a considerable crossroads. Although the icelandic troupe have never faltered since the breakthrough of Agaetis Byrjun in 1999 (nearly ten years now!!), Takk... was a clear climax, featuring enough cathartic releases of harmony and drama to exhaust even their most faithful followers. Epic, gorgeous and immensely satisfying as Takk... was, it still begged the question: what can they do after this? Really, what route can they take without releasing Takk II? And as breathtaking as Heim/Hvarf is, it's a double-edged reminder of how tired post-rock is as often as how brilliant Sigur Ros are. Being the flagship band for its genre, was it possible that Sigur Ros had outgrown post-rock?

Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (translated roughly as With a Buzz in Our Ear, We Play Endlessly) doesn't go so far as to answer that question, although first single 'Gobbledigook' made a decent, first-single bid to overhaul the Sigur Ros sound with its tribal rhythms and raw acoustics. It's a perfect example of a band completely changing while maintaining the very best of their crafts; Sigur Ros make you believe they could rival Animal Collective in the freak-folk department any day of the week. So what happens after that? Well, we get alot of great songs, some of which employing a similar use of spontaneity, but in all, a record that isn't so far removed from its older siblings. This, like those before it, is a Sigur Ros record in nearly every respect: ecstatic, feel-good rushes of cacophony, densely moving ambient ballads, great production, better songwriting, and the occasional track that goes nowhere realllly slowly. 'Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur' is probably the sixty-seventh great reason to listen to Sigur Ros when falling in love, all slapped piano chords and arena-worthy hand-claps, while 'Ára bátur' evokes a sorrow I expected the band incapable of by this point, pushed to excellence by Jonsi's incredible coos.

The only clear distinguisher between this and the earlier Sigur Ros discography is how unbalanced it can feel, as if they're divided about whether to step boldly into a second 'Goobledigook'-inflected phase, or continue to peddle their brand of classical post-rock (a template that, for the record, shows no sign of wearing thin). The tempo of their more driven material is quicker here, the tempo of their reflective material even slower; it can be difficult trying to find your footing when Sigur Ros are usually so cautious with their sequencing.

Although many of my questions stated above remain unanswered, I have no doubts that Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust is wonderful, the kind of record that I feel, a month on, I'm still cracking the surface of. Sigur Ros constantly have their work cut out for them because they've so rarely faltered, but if With a Buzz in Our Ear, We Play Endlessly does eventually edge out Takk... as the better album, I wager its secret will lie in songs like 'Íllgresi' and 'Fljótavík': songs that sum up Sigur Ros' sound - as lame as it will read, the sound that reminds us how beautiful it is to be alive - but without the long-winded meandering or overdone climaxes that post-rock has clung to and Sigur Ros has evaded criticism over. Takk... reveled in those habits, and if Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaus does end up just another classic Sigur Ros record, these moments will be its small victory.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Another Dark Day for The Album

Bad news to all you audiophiles in cyberspace: it's another sad day for The Album. Yes, that's right... in case you didn't think the cross-marketing swoop of ringtone culture or ADD blog habits were enough to crush the ambitious Album, that almighty record where each song plays to the greater good of a whole, original music experience: let this be another nail in the coffin.

Sometime in the past two days, Bradford Cox (AKA Atlas Sound, AKA lead singer of Deerhunter) uploaded one of his free-to-own digital EPs from his band blog for mass consumption. This generosity is entirely common to the fans who've followed him, as Cox has released at least one hundred free downloads - some of which are demos, most being fully produced and finished songs - to anyone with a free minute to take them. (In an unnecessary aside, he's the nicest rock star I've ever come across; super-polite, talkative, and lacking any of the too-cool-for-thou attitude we've all witnessed most times we enter a venue.) Anyway, when Cox took time out of his day to post another free Virtual 7" EP onto the well-known MediaFire file-sharing website, he didn't think to lock his MediaFire account. This meant that when crafty fans downloaded the Virtual 7" EP, they could also creep around his account and steal a surprise bonus CD that was bound for release with Deerhunter's October follow-up Microcastle (which, so you know, already leaked to internet weeks ago). Because of one person's need to, not only steal songs but, post this material on Radiohead's super-popular fan-site At Ease Web, a place where most in-the-know indie-kids find the top album leaks, Deerhunter have been robbed of their unmastered gift to fans (Weird Era Cont.) as well as Cox's own Atlas Sound follow-up (Logos). Sure, they still have the song rights but when you work hard on new material and one day find that everyone owns it - in demo and unmastered quality, at that - it reduces the creative thunder that makes being a recording artist worthwhile. Cox is considering letting Logos go now; no completing unfinished tracks, no album artwork, no release date. Just scrapping the whole thing. And who can blame him?

The leak was his fault; he knows it and has admitted so on his blog. Still, with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound both releasing some groundbreaking work in the past two years, I can't help but think we're losing out when all we have to show for a quick illegal download is an unfinished album. Cox says Microcastle (and its bonus disc) would've been a great Fall record; maybe I'm the only one who believes in that anymore. Ah well, God rest The Album.

The following are several mini-albums and EPs self-released by Atlas Sound through 2007-2008. All of which can be found and legally downloaded for free here.

Virtual 7" and EPs - Atlas Sound

Virtual 7" - Vol. 4

Atlas Sound

SCQ Rating: 73%

Most of Atlas Sound's non-Kranky output can be categorized into two camps; the first being a lush electronic bed of warm fuzz and sterile melodies, the second being a humid exposition of distorted glam guitar and Lou Reed drawls. 'Holiday', the lead song of this 7", certainly falls into the latter category, strutting the night sidewalks like 'Activation' but surprisingly better thanks to Cox's cheeky delivery. Although Atlas Sound's debut is one of my favourite records this year because of those complex digital collages, I wouldn't complain in the least if his follow-up was chocked full of these aching guitar jams.

'S.S.C.' swallows the momentum of 'Holiday' completely, introducing us to a wasteland of awkward percussion and burnt-out vocals. Even so, at over six minutes, this track might find you nodding your head in hypnotic refrains if it doesn't drive you insane or bored first. As the newest entry in Atlas Sound's Virtual 7" collection, Vol. 4 marks a middle ground: 'Holiday' is Cox in top form while 'S.S.C.', for all of its aimlessness, still shows Atlas Sound pushing its boundaries and looking for a third sonic camp.

Virtual 7" - Vol. 3

Atlas Sound

SCQ Rating: 83%

A dying drum machine sets the robotic waltz pace of 'Bored Dub', a romantic slow-burner that finds Cox the feather-lite crooner, stating simply "I was so bored with my life / the way things were". Reverb heavy guitar chimes like an angel choir over his half asleep delivery, which gradually multiplies into several vocal loops, each more serene and hypnotic than the last. 'Bored Dub', while not fitting well onto Let the Blind Lead Those..., is an ideal example of Atlas Sound's blog releases; drugged out, spacey, well-rounded and damn sexy.

When 'No Longer's electronic clicks sputter to life, Cox gives us one of his finest bedroom-pop instrumentals. It's repetition makes it sound simple, but the layers overlap as its running-time progresses, leading to a zone-out where guessing how long 'No Longer' actually is might be difficult.

Requiem To All the Lonely Teenagers With Passed Out Moms 7"
Atlas Sound

SCQ Rating: 75%

Yeah, this one actually exists in physical space; I own it! Found it for sale at their merch table after they'd displayed a blistering performance in its honour (at my request!!), and wasted no time in scooping it up. 'RTATLTWPOM' is sensational, it's lethargy perfect for both Cox's lyrical content and the eerie atmospheres, provided by an old keyboard, reminiscent of that same otherworldly spin that made the Cure's 'All Cats Are Grey' so dreamy.

'Cobwebs', on the flipside, is less coherent; a violent reaction to the peace and submission of its counterpoint. All cluttered percussion and distorted vocals, this B-side reduces the impact of the collectors item a bit but contains all the yang to the A-side's ying. Check it out to hear the opposing styles of Atlas Sound.

(No picture was available for this 7" and since my copy is nowhere nearby, I've included the cover of Amsterdam Midi EP.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Takes - Adem


Domino Records.

SCQ Rating: 69%

Multi-instrumentalists are an interesting breed of musician. If they aren't already a solo artist, they quickly become one because they know everything. Why wait on someone else's banjo/piano/flute/horn accompaniment when you can just do it yourself? And the way you want it?!? For all their knowledge and talents (be it Adem, Sufjan Stevens, whoever), their greatest gift just might be their humble nature. In it for the craft and not the glory, these artists are the antithesis to the infamous ego; Paul McCartney writing full Beatles albums and trying to get them to play along, or Billy Corgan taking credit for performing all guitar and bass duties on Siamese Dream because his band's efforts weren't good enough. Part of living for the craft is paying your dues, which Adem has chosen to do on Takes; a covers record of all his favourite songs growing up. It's an idea I think most audiophiles can appreciate - we've all made mixtapes for our friends and lovers - and for serious Adem-fans who've heard these covers performed for years in his shows, Takes can be weighed as his official third album just as reasonably as a covers side-project.

The question: with only two albums under his belt (Fridge material notwithstanding) and a ton of creative ideas on display, is Takes a good idea? My answer, unprepared as it is: kinda. The first mention of a covers record immediately rules out several expectations, the obvious being original material, as focus will be on the cover selections. Thematic passages and lyrical content that gave distinction to Homesongs and Love and Other Planets are absent here, so much of an album's regular thunder is replaced with the anticipation of wondering how the Turkish Englishman will handle the likes of Bjork, Aphex Twin, PJ Harvey and the Smashing Pumpkins. Yes, it's an eclectic group of inspirational artists that, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns Takes into a mixed bag; half could be Adem originals (the coy melody and subtle distortion of 'Bedside Table', the warm confessional of 'Hotellounge'), the other half inching beyond his comfort zone. Pinback's 'Loro' maintains its steady tempo but is softened by acoustic taps and hypnotic backing vocals, while 'To Cure a Weakling Child' finds Adem overcoming a principle challenge by first spinning Aphex Twin's acid-beats into a pastoral acoustic ditty, and then blowing it to epic levels (lots o' percussion, toy piano, and gadgetry) without losing the original's romantic quality. When Takes falters, it's because Adem has picked songs that are originally fantastic and difficult to spin comfortably into something new. Bjork's 'Unravel' is one such misfire, as it was for Thom Yorke in his cover, because neither singer could perform her vocal melody without it sounding strained. Lisa Germano's 'Slide' suffers from striking a similar plateau, where Adem's voice, unique and enjoyable as it is, simply can't wrap itself around the original's intonation without sounding sluggish. As I said, by design, it's all about the songs.

As a one-off project, Takes arrives on a whim and, even when it's not particularly great, it remains pleasurable in its novelty. That said, I wouldn't rest on this for long if I was Adem. Until the next official step in his young career, this folk singer has given us a generous stop-gap release, one worth admiring for its ambition as ardently as Adem clearly loves these twelve songs, orchestrated and fleshed out, from his formidable years. And, as is typical of our multi-instrumentalist, he shines the spotlight on his muses, not himself. It's no wonder everyone only knows of Fridge as "that band with Four Tet".

Faith - The Cure (Remastered Double Disc)


The Cure
Fiction Records.

SCQ Rating: 90%

Arriving late to the majesty that is The Cure discography, I was fortunate enough to discover their 1981 classic Faith twice. February 2006: I found myself ending each night burrowed deep in my basement room of a shared house, playing Faith from beginning to end while drifting in and out of sleep. Lights out and letting those hollow basslines feel around the room, I memorized that record like a blind man counting steps around his house; 'The Holy Hour' was an open invitation to fully connect with sorrow, 'Primary' and 'Doubt' were the two post-punk rebels I held in anticipation (or else they'd scare me half to death), 'Drowning Man' was my echo-drenched favourite, the title track my nursery rhyme of the highest merit. November 2006: Moved cities, changed jobs and found myself working a nightshift job. Each night I worked in repetitions, hands over the same objectives and mind cycling the same thoughts, but took solace in my humble MP3 player which, among many artists featured Faith in its entirety. Its dirge-style percussion, unforgettable basslines and Smith's tormented vocals had stolen me once again - this time assuring me that I'd found a personal favourite record - although I had a good idea why it needed that encore to fully sink in.

Even without the guidance of those two vivid, month-consuming memories, Faith is a nocturnal record... the kind people could hear once, cast off as boring, and feel completely at peace with their opinion. At first listen, these eight songs are as monochromatic as the artwork; barren and nihilistic by nature, similar in mood and content. For those who found peace and understanding beneath Smith's dark allusions, however, Faith is a bittersweet collection, nurtured together with a grace that The Cure have yet to top since. The back alley paranoia that occasionally unsettles 'Other Voices' builds upon a bass hook, tightening to a sinister groove, while 'Primary' reminds us of The Cure's roots as post-punk pioneers alongside Siouxshie and the Banshees and Joy Division. Best of all are 'All Cats are Grey' and 'The Funeral Party', the back-to-back centerpiece that finds the band exploring musical and studio space; delving into keyboard atmospherics and gothy dreampop. Such subtleties are best felt in the night, when you're alone and open to every nuance; both of my Faith discoveries (the first, enjoying it, the second, adoring it) were courtesy of Smith and Co.'s focus and vision. The fact that they were experimenting heavily with drugs at the time makes these results all the more baffling.

And now, with the release of Faith in remastered, double-disc form, I've owned it twice. A record this crisp, when remastered, runs miles around the analog-recorded original and unearthed a few keyboard shimmers and vocal loops I'd missed in the past. The real ticket here is 'Carnage Visors: The Soundtrack', a nearly half-hour instrumental that, placed lovingly at the end of Faith, completes the record in a way Smith had always intended. Compared to the brevity of the original record, 'Carnage Visors' is a bit of a marathon, but it's a suite that's undeniably tied to Faith in aesthetic and mood. Its companion disc, a collection of demos and outtakes from the Faith session, is less immediate but contains all the curios that fans will theorize over as well as the single 'Charlotte Sometimes' - a favourite that was only available on their first greatest hits compilation until now.

Saying that this isn't a record for everyone might qualify for understatement of the year - I know Cure fans who've never really taken to it - but for those in need of a personal, wintry comedown record, Faith is truly an original artifact of the slowcore and post-punk scenes colliding. One of the most elegant crashes I've heard.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Terminal Romance - Matt Mays & El Torpedo

Terminal Romance

Matt Mays and El Torpedo
Sonic Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

“Sophomore Slump? Not bloody likely!” claims a press release that begs a moment’s consideration. Yes, this is El Torpedo’s second album on the bill, but it’s Mays fourth album (excluding his time with the Guthries) and as the principle songwriter, Mays knows any “sophomore” pressure is just another angle for hype. It works… especially when you have a first single as deliciously melodic and heavy as ‘Tall Trees’ to back up any underdog propaganda.

All the same, Terminal Romance distances itself from the band's 2005 debut. El Torpedo was defined not simply by meat and potatoes rock, but by storytelling the lives of characters who struggled to sort through love and loss in the city of lakes. From an interfered romance with a tennis-pro heroine to the summer couple in denial of a looming September, El Torpedo was undoubtedly the vision of Mays alone, albeit with a stronger backing band presence. On the other hand, Terminal Romance feels like part of Mays’ diagesis; the record playing over every bar booth where his protagonists sit, pushing back their liquid courage. Yes, its muscular guitars are high and heavy in the mix, giving 'Northern Belle' power in its chords and 'The Hunter, The Hunted' a swirl of mid-90s Tragically Hip tension, but this straight focus on rawking out warrants Terminal Romance as soundtrack material to a night out but sells Mays countless talents short.

Interestingly enough, this is the first Matt Mays album to abstain from included lyrics, and equally curious is how its liner notes fail to outline who wrote what songs. So what are we to assume: did Mays relinquish his captain’s chair for the sake of a group effort, or is Mays beginning to write on cruise control? In either case, the second half of Terminal Romance presents a band content to dwindle in the transposable wasteland of CanCon could’ve-beens; a slap in the face to the record’s first half that seemed destined for greatness. The cause of these misfires might be Mays on-sleeve love for classic rock - a style he reworked with style on El Torpedo - which finds some latter songs burdened by how much it has borrowed. Take 'Stand and Deliver', a tune so well measured to Tom Petty-territory that Mays should've considered the icon's litigious streak before including it here, or 'Laser Guided Love', a song so fascinated by its aw-shucks love with a stranger that Mays forgets to write real lyrics or give the melody some originality. Such drastic cuts to quality control, when compared to any of Mays previous material, is worrisome; is El Torpedo now his classic rock escape, a sidelining decision to afford his solo work more avenues? Or has Mays impressive pace of releasing records slowly caught up to him and found his songbook empty?

Enough about those three or four songs; they're OK, really, in fact I've grown to like them - just not because they're very good. If I sound like I'm too hard on Mays, it's because Terminal Romance started as a powerhouse record; the kind of breakthrough hit Canada wants a Canadian rocker to have right now. 'Building a Boat' launches forward with an excited Mays and his band rocking to their own sound, jumping out of line instead of playing single file, before bowing out to four following songs that are each excellent. 'Digital Eyes' has an 80s guitar band feel that brings to mind Ryan Adams circa 2003, 'Tall Trees' is nearly impossible to shake from your brain once it gets in. And thankfully, proving how varied the first half of this record is to the second half, Mays gives the work of his idols a personal spin to great success on 'Rock Ranger Record', a no-hold-bars Ramones zinger, and the title track, an epic that evokes Springsteen and the E-Street Band and steals the album with an exhaustingly awesome climax. More than anything else here, 'Terminal Romance' reminds us what Mays is capable of; a vocal chord-shredding ballad that outclasses his fellow Can-Rock colleagues (cough, Sam Roberts, cough). And that's why I'm torn over this album, because he has managed to outclass himself.

When the Angels Make Contact, his last solo album, was based on Mays idea of making a record that began at sunset and closed at first light. By the time ‘Long Since Gone’s chorus closes, a sweet, pedal steel farewell to a sunset, I have to ponder where Mays’ next step lies: as bar band leader or solo trombadour. As Terminal Romance suggests, Mays can pull off one role but shines brighter in the other.