Musical progress is important.
If it wasn't, Kurt Cobain would have been just another drug addict, The Kinks would have been content rewriting blues licks all day long, and no one would despise hair metal as much as they do now. Granted this is more important to some artists than others, but the idea of progress eventually leads a select few in the musical world to really "push the envelope" when it comes to creating cutting edge and innovative sounds.
While such experiments might come across as half-baked and alien at first, progress isn't without growing pains. As such, it's important to recognize those taking risks, the ones hell-bent on redefining the sonic palate. For this, look no further than indie darlings Animal Collective, whose new album Merriweather Post Pavilion is already being touted as one of the landmark records of the decade. The musical revolving door of Avey Tare (David Portner), Panda Bear (Noah Lennox), Deakin (Josh Dibb), and Geologist (Brian Weitz) seems to have pushed past the off-kilter and busy arrangements on 2006's Strawberry Jam, into something far more lucid and spacious.
At its bare essence, Merriweather Post Pavilion is an electronic fantasia of hazy synthesizers, delay soaked guitar, busy tribal drumming and Portner's distinctively wavering vocals. This is all evident from the first track, "In The Flowers," an expansive song that marries splashing electronics, imploding feedback and ascending guitar patterns to really illustrate Animal Collective's passion for exploratory arrangements.
Yet, both musical and vocal hooks don't unfold in the traditional sense on Merriweather Post Pavilion. Whether it's the staggered counterpoint, rolling synthesizers and hand claps on "My Girls," to the bouncy delivery of "Summertime Clothes," Animal Collective warp poppy aesthetics into twisting world jumbles and organized chaos.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the album's stand out, "Bluish." A bizarre hybrid of pulsing beats, liquid melodies, and shuffling electronics, "Bluish" straddles the line between gentle Beach Boy-harmonies and reverb drenched soundscapes. The result is a song that highlights Animal Collective's strengths: Fearless experimentation coupled with a strong knowledge of pop structure.
Yet while Merriweather Post Pavilion exhibits a dreamy psychedelic pop sensibility throughout its 11 tracks, it's certainly not an album that will spawn any Top 40 hits anytime soon. Like most Animal Collective releases, the band gets into trouble when they let their indulgences get the better of them. Cuts like "Taste" meander over a sea of blips and squeals, underplayed with clacking drum loops and shuddering rhythms. While the band's Philip Glass-meets-The Beatles mentality often leads to surprising results, sometimes a little more structure goes a long way.
As a whole, the album holds too few tracks that reach a music apex, as Animal Collective seem intent on pushing their sound into a murky, and sometimes monotonous, miasma. "Lion In A Coma" begins promisingly enough with winding vocals and thick bass, but ends before it really takes off. For some reason, Animal Collective has associated musical tension with time signature changes, which ultimately makes these compositions feel more sterile then they should.
This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Merriweather Post Pavilion, many of these tracks are not fully formed.
Most of these songs feel like scraps of musical ideas that have been painstakingly jigsawed together, rather than harmoniously layered. Hanging on high-pitched samples, "Brothersport" provides a carefree and airy atmosphere but feels more like a sketch than a fleshed out arrangement. Elsewhere, the gang harmonies and plodding pace of "No More Runnin'" feels like an extended bridge or midsection that's gone on too long, a problem that seems to plague the second half of the album.
While it's clear that the band is trying to get audiences to approach music and melody in an unconventional way, it's also disappointing to see a very detail oriented band produce tracks that feel incomplete. So, despite the fact that it's far from the "album of the decade," Merriweather Post Pavilion provides fans with an intricately crafted listening experience.
However, Animal Collective has made an album that, while more accessible than a majority of their back catalog, still defies traditional genre classification. Nobody is currently tinkering with the types of sounds that Animal Collective are, and that's a sure sign this band is pushing toward something bigger with their sound.
While jarring upon first listen, Merriweather Post Pavilion is still a lush and detailed album from some of the most fearless men in the music world. Some added focus could tighten up their arrangements further, but that is ultimately the price of progress: Sometimes trailblazers and innovators stumble onto something special, but they'll make some mistakes along the way. For Animal Collective and Merriweather Post Pavilion, it's just a case of growing pains as they look towards the future of what contemporary music can be.
Sounds Like: Philip Glass failing to play The White Album (The Beatles)
Key Cuts: In The Flowers, My Girls, Bluish
Author's Note: This review appears in a recent issue of the Sonoma State Star. As this is the author's own writing and this is his own blog, in addition to holding the position of A&E Editor for the Sonoma State Star, he posts it here with express consent of himself. Duh.
Click on the artwork to sample some of Merriweather Post Pavilion for yourself!
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Musical progress is important.
Friday, January 16, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
These are the albums in 2008 that caught my ears, piqued my interest and took up space on both my iPod and computer. If something you know of isn’t on here, it was either too terrible to mention, or I didn’t listen to it. Of course, the ratings are out of 5 stars and my own opinion. For a complete list of music releases this year, go here.
And now, without further adieu…
Best Release of 2008: Death Magnetic by Metallica (*****)
Without a doubt, 2008’s crown jewel was Metallica’s Death Magnetic, a lumbering 75 minute, 10 track beast that was nothing short of extraordinary. Immediate without sacrificing complexity, James Hetfield & Co. created an album that successfully married their 80s roots with their 90s experimentation. The result is a gripping take on modern thrash. Cuts such as “That Was Just Your Life” and “Broken, Beat, & Scarred” gallop along with sharp riffs, Kirk Hammett’s searing lead work, and ever shifting arrangements. Yet perhaps the most satisfying part is that Death Magnetic is an exercise in focused songwriting, from a group of individuals ready to self-destruct a mere 4 years ago. In short, is represents a band operating at their most efficient and most creative while refusing to remain complacent well into their 40s.
Key Cuts: That Was Just Your Life, Broken Beat & Scarred, Cyanide
Best Debut: Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend (***½)
Channeling an almost Beatles-esque pop sensibility, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut really took 2008 by force. Try as one might, its difficult not to have their delicious blend of string laced afro-pop, come across as anything but lighthearted and fun. Lead singer Ezra Koenig’s nasally wail provides a charming (If uneven) spine for stutter-stop drums, faux-reggae upstrokes, and lush keyboard trickery. Tracks such as the quaint “Campus” and the bouncy “Walcott” pull listeners in because of their sheer accessibility. And while these Columbian snobs might have some growing up to do, it’s clear that they’ve set the bar quite high for their follow-up.
Key Cuts: Oxford Comma, Campus, Walcott
Best Rock Release: Modern Guilt by Beck (****½)
It’s rare to find an album these days that’s as relevant as it is musically evocative of such themes; however, Beck’s Modern Guilt does just that. With the help of Danger Mouse, Beck strips his sound back to its bare ethereal essence and the result is staggering. With the spaced out theatrics of “Chemtrails” to the skittering 8-bit charm of “Modern Guilt,” Beck’s focused and spacious sound explores the emptiness of modern society while retaining his signature wit. More social than political, Modern Guilt provides a naked and pointed look at ourselves at the end of the Bush era. The result is Beck’s strongest record since Sea Change, as well as one that’s frighteningly relevant.
Key Cuts: Chemtrails, Modern Guilt, Volcano
Best Metal Release- A Sense Of Purpose by In Flames (*****)
Riding on thundering drums, Iron Maiden-like harmonies, and Anders Fridén’s rasped vocals, In Flames perches themselves at the top of the metal heap once again with A Sense Of Purpose. Decidedly leaner and more melodic than their last few outings, the Gothenburg 5 piece proves that tunefulness and consistency still exist within the realm of metal music. Through out the album, guitarists Jesper Strömblad and Björn Gelotte trade shimmering licks like the ones found on “Sleepless Again,” against a back drop of fluttering double bass and Peter Iwers’ growling bass. Big gang vocals like the ones found on “Alias” make the band seem massive, just before drawing in listeners with gentle acoustic interludes. With A Sense Of Purpose, In Flames prove that it’s not the heaviest band that wins out, but the one that focuses themselves without succumbing to technical indulgences metal is known for.
Key Cuts: Sleepless Again, Alias, The Chosen Pessimist
Best Punk Release- United Nations by United Nations (****)
They’re only press shots are with Regan masks. Their album cover features The Beatles engulfed in flames, and they have some abrasively raw production. United Nations might be the most DIY sounding band to come around in a while, but they’ve got the musical chops and the ideology to back it up. The only discernable member in the mix is Thursday’s Geoff Rickely, simply because his recognizable wail-to-screech delivery is all over tracks such as “Filmed In Front Of A Live Studio Audience” and “The Shape Of Punk That Never Came.” However, that anonymity hardly detracts from the experience, as this album is a fervent call to arms. Bristling, caustic guitars spin and crash over on each other, while the manic drumming pushes United Nations’ sound to its very limits. And in dire times such as these, thank goodness for a band like United Nations.
Key Cuts: The Spinning Heart Of The Yo-Yo Lobby, The Shape Of Punk That Never Came, Filmed In Front Of A Live Studio Audience
Best Electronic Release- Ghosts I-IV by Nine Inch Nails (*****)
2008 was a huge year for Nine Inch Nails. A successful tour and two innovatively released albums made Trent Reznor into everybody’s best friend. That being said, it was his 4 E.P, instrumental collection Ghost I-IV that came across as impressive. Implementing everything from sparse electronic beats, to tension filled strings, marimba, hazy guitar and ominous piano, Reznor focused his song writing on moody atmospheres. These tightly layered soundscapes showed an artist pushing the limits of his established sound, with white noise haze and glitchy electronics, offering depth rather than aggression. While much slower than previous NIN releases, Ghosts I-IV successfully showcases Reznor as an expert musician and composer rather than just an angry rock star.
Key Cuts: 4 Ghosts I, 10 Ghosts II, 31 Ghosts IV
Best Produced Release- Viva La Vida Or Death & All His Friends by Coldplay (***½)
Brian Eno saved Coldplay, plain and simple. After the pedantic Prozac-rock of X&Y, Eno pushed the band to come into their own artistically with Viva La Vida Or Death & All His Friends. Where the band once sounded derivative, they’ve now developed a hazy and percussive atmosphere to their music. This is clear from the pomp and circumstance of “Viva La Vida” with its resonating vocals and sweet marriage of electronic beats and classical gusto. Elsewhere, the sleepy strings of “Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant,” illustrates that Coldplay has finally been able to distance themselves from their influences. A good producer knows how to not only make a record sound great, but how to glean great performances from their clients. In that respect, Eno has hit one out of the park entirely.
Key Cuts: Cemeteries Of London, Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant, Viva La Vida
Best Comeback Release- Chinese Democracy by Guns N' Roses (****)
Let’s be honest, nobody expected Axl Rose to deliver this 14 year in the waiting, spazzed-out metal meets art rock monster. It was, perhaps, the longest running joke in rock history save for maybe Brian Wilson’s Smile. Yet putting Rose’s neurosis aside, he and his hired guns have crafted an impressive set of songs that Izzy and Slash would have never conceived of on their own. Chinese Democracy revels in its excess, whether it’s the swelling horns and pained guitar of “Madagascar,” or the hyper indulgent and scalding lead work of “There Was A Time.” If anything, the album is a throw back to 70s rock extravagance, when bands we’re eager to accompany their songs will full orchestration. And while it will never top the original band’s legacy, Chinese Democracy is certainly the uncompromising statement Axl Rose wanted to it to be.
Key Cuts: Street Of Dreams, There Was A Time, Madagascar
Best E.P.- American Gothic E.P. by The Smashing Pumpkins (****)
A present and gentle surprise considering Billy Corgan’s recent “crank-it-to-11” attitude as of late, American Gothic is a minimal and charming song cycle that reminds people of The Smashing Pumpkins’ tenderness. Primarily acoustic, Corgan’s picked and strummed guitar tones shimmer over his breathy voice while Jimmy Chamberlin provides pitter-patter percussion that never seeming flashy or showy. Yet perhaps the most intriguing aspect of American Gothic is it’s defeated center under that acoustic sheen. On “Pox” Corgan hopelessly reappears “We’re giving back a dream…” Whether or not this is a stab at the labels that have dicked with Corgan in the past, American Gothic hauntingly portrays a present tense that’s surprisingly darker than what might appear at first glance.
Key Cuts: The Rose March, Pox, Sunkissed
Most Ambitious- 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West (****)
In today’s world of hip-hop, it takes balls to make a concept album let alone a concept album with minimal rapping and a whole lot of Auto-Tune. However, Kanye West has made of the most off-kilter (And robotic sounding) pop albums of the past twenty years. The sparse beats, the cascading keyboards, the tribal drumming, it all adds up to a record as big and overreaching as Mr. West’s ego itself. Between the cinematic strings and fluttering electronics that ear mark “RoboCop” to the pulsing and minimal thumps from “Love Lockdown,” Kanye West’s ode to heartbreak and emptiness is an engaging listen. While cold as austere, the album never lacks melody or feels over processed, a true testament to West’s ear for hooks. And after all is said and done, Kanye West cements himself as an artist with this release, one unafraid of populist backlash as well as one focused on tinkering with the sounds he’s most interested in.
Key Cuts: Amazing (Feat. Young Jeezy), Love Lockdown, RoboCop
Most Experimental- Intimacy by Bloc Party (****)
Those that hit it big in the indie scene have it so easy. To ensure their place in cult-like worship, all they have to do is release two identical albums and then break up, forcing people to wonder what they would have come up with on their third effort. Thankfully, Bloc Party is not one of those shallow bands. After the expansive A Weekend In The City, the British four piece returned with Intimacy, a slick fusion of electronics and fuzzy overdrive. Aside from being Kele Okereke’s most personal album yet, Intimacy is a the sound of a band fully in control of their evolution rather than one worried about Pitchfork Media’s backlash. From the thick dance beats that permeate throughout “Zephyrus” to the gentle chimes that mark “Signs,” Bloc Party comfortably stretches their sonic palate without throwing away what makes them special. And while many might yearn for the spiky post-punk of Silent Alarm, it’s hard to be disappointed when the results feel this immersive and satisfying.
Key Cuts: Biko, Signs, Zephyrus
Most Eclectic- Weezer (The Red Album) by Weezer (*****)
Rarely does rock come across as so bombastic yet so successful. On Weezer (The Red Album), Rivers Cuomo pushes his power pop panache through a musical smorgasbord of sounds. The 5 minute mini opera “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn),” marches through at least ten different genres including brash hip-hop, Queen-esqe elegance, and bouncy new wave. For Weezer, this album was a clear reaction against those demanding another Weezer (The Blue Album) or another Pinkerton. This was an album where they decided to indulge in every musical fancy imaginable. It’s evident on tracks such as the grungy rap-rock of “Everybody Get Dangerous” or the driving power-pop of “Dreamin’.” And it’s refreshing to see Weezer, a band under constant scrutiny, simply throwing a bunch of musical sounds into a blender and hitting puree. On Weezer (The Red Album), they actually sound like their having fun.
Key Cuts: The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn), Everybody Get Dangerous, Dreamin’
Most Critically Praised- Dear Science, by TV On The Radio (***½)
Top honors from both Rollingstone and Spin magazine (As well as everyone else’s blog for that matter) TV On The Radio’s Dear Science, is certainly worthy of its praise. Seamlessly transitioning to a hookier take on their funk meets jazz by way of hip-hop, Dear Science, is an album that’s far more accessible than 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain. This is far from a selling out however. Singer Tunde Adebimpe rides his saccharine falsetto making lines like “We hang from the gallows/Of our family tree” seem like typical fair on “Family Tree.” The whole effort feels far more organic and fun than their past outings; even of the lyrics are some of the bleakest of TV’s career. Elsewhere, the dense fluttering beats that permeate “Love Dog” feel restrained rather than chaotic. For a band that prides itself on pushing sonic boundaries, it’s refreshing to seem the execute some subtly like they have here on Dear Science,.
Key Cuts: Family Tree, Love Dog, Lover’s Day
Most Critically Crapped On- Rise & Fall, Rage & Grace by The Offspring (***)
Let’s get right down to it: Nobody wants to hear the Offspring unless they are channeling a weird amalgam of punk meets metal (Smash) or when they are churning out radio friendly jams (Americana). Unfortunately, this means anything else is scorned by critics and long-time fans alike. Rise & Fall, Rage & Grace might not be the best Offspring album, but it is enjoyable. This back-to-basic approach really focused some of their songwriting and arrangements, from the lean bouncing attack of “Half-Truism” to the ascending backing harmonies of “Trust In You.” While this less-is-more approach reveals that Dexter Holland and Noodles haven’t progressed past high school, it’s clear that sometimes an album can just be full of energy and be fun to listen to. Rise & Fall is certainly that: Not as good or bad as people tout it to be, just chock full energy.
Key Cuts: Half-Truism, Trust In You, Hammerhead
Biggest Surprise- Folie à Deux by Fall Out Boy (***½)
I’ll be honest, I expected to HATE Folie à Deux on the simple principle that this was NOT the Fall Out Boy that I fell in love with. For Christ’s sake, Lil Wayne is on this record (Nothing against him, but he doesn’t belong on a FOB record). But instead, I received a brash pop record that sports some of Pete Wentz’s best writing as well as some great rock excess. There isn’t a song on Folie à Deux that doesn’t cram in huge strings, twinkling piano, electronic flourishes, or saccharine harmonies, but there are moments where the record simply explodes. “America’s Suitehearts” crashes down with merciless power-pop fervor, while “(Coffee’s For Closers)” relies on Patrick Stump’s snappy delivery and Andrew Hurley’s deep drums. This is a juggernaut fueled not by ramen, but by stardom, indulgence, and surprisingly focused song craft. Well done boys.
Key Cuts: America’s Suitehearts, (Coffee’s For Closers), 20 Dollar Nose Bleed
Biggest Letdown- Pretty. Odd. by Panic(!) At The Disco (**½)
You know what was great about Panic(!) At The Disco? They didn’t sound like any other band when they came out. That was true until Pretty. Odd., a 15 song collection that shamelessly indulges in a Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles sound and floundering folk. While some tracks like the horn underscored “Nine In The Afternoon” and the acoustic driven “Northern Downpour” work because they feel fully formed and thought out, many of the tracks here are lazily slapped together. Aside from how derivative the material sounds, it’s upsetting that Pretty. Odd. feels underwritten with sugary pop-faire and Ryan Ross’ awful singing voice. To think, the band scrapped two full albums for this. Word to the wise: Bring back the glitchy electronics, Brandon Urie’s wailing voice on all the tracks, and the Palahniuk references. It’ll be a wilder ride than this sloppy and uneven record.
Key Cuts: Nine In The Afternoon, Do You Know What I’m Seeing?, Northern Downpour
Biggest Blog Buzz- Oracular Spectacular by MGMT (***)
Riding along crunchy synthesizers, disco beats, and wailing vocals, MGMT have mystified the Internet to become the pinnacle of hipster chic. It’s not too surprising either, where other new wave revival acts polish and compress their sound, MGMT are all about distorting their melodies in digital white noise. The pulsing sway and bounce of “Time To Pretend” has made everyone take notice from it’s watery effects to it’s breathy vocals. Elsewhere, “Electric Feel’s” retro throw-back to 70s dance halls feels surprisingly fresh rather than horribly out dated. It just goes to show you that sonic revivals don’t necessarily need to sound squeaky clean to catch on. Sometimes, they need some digital grit.
Key Cuts: Time To Pretend, Electric Feel, Kids
The Album That Should Have Caught On- Goodbye Blues by The Hush Sound (*****)
I’m sort of surprised at how many people still don’t know about The Hush Sound, and at how they aren’t a musical juggernaut at this point. However, Bob Morris and Greta Salpeter’s infectious marriage of jumpy blues and swinging jazz has made them something truly special. From the hammering drums and nimble piano of “Medicine Man” to the grungy swagger of “As You Cry,” The Hush Sound sports an organic sound that harkens back to past musical styles while remaining distinctly modern. Hopefully, through obsessive touring and another strong album such as this one, they’ll break through to mainstream recognition like I know they should.
Key Cuts: Medicine Man, Hurricane, As You Cry
Worst Release- Day & Age by The Killers (*)
The single star for Day & Age is merely due to the lead single “Human.” A dense dance anthem, “Human” finds The Killers ascending to stratospheric heights through thick electronic beats and fuzzed out distortion. It feels fresh, spontaneous, and as enormous as Brandon Flowers’ ego. However, it’s too bad that it’s the only track to feel so. The rest of the album plays out with the terrible hindrances of 80s era music: Overproduction. Processed drums, random sax sections, cheesy guitar tones, and half-baked lyrics foil what could have been an impressive release from The Killers. While there are moments on Day & Age that might remind fans of the glitzed out fun of Hot Fuss, most of it comes across as a tired retread of what other new wavers had done far better (And far earlier). Sorry guys, but last year’s odds and ends collection Sawdust, felt fresher.
Key Cut: Human
WILDCARD!- Narrow Stairs by Death Cab For Cutie (****½)
I decided to do a WILDCARD! Pick this year, simply because there are always albums I love that never fit into a specific category. This year, Death Cab For Cutie’s Narrow Stairs is that lucky album. While it’s been no secret about how this particular release has conflicted me, I can assure you that Ben Gibbard’s band has some special things going on this record. From the ethereal and haunting 8 minute jam “I Will Possess Your Heart” to the lush feedback soaked folk of “Cath…,” Narrow Stairs is an album with a hooky surface and a bleak under belly. The portraits that Gibbard’s sweet tenor paints for audiences are of a world that seems to swallow people up. And by using hazy overdrive and warm bass, Death Cab For Cutie are able to evoke something melancholy without being melodramatic. While it’s not Death Cab’s most immediate record, it will be one that stays with you long after those first few listens.
Key Cuts: I Will Possess Your Heart, Cath…, Talking Bird
The following releases were all albums that I really enjoyed in 2008 and receive a 3/5 and above from me (For whatever that’s worth to you). Some are better than others and some were close to being listed up top for specific categories. Regardless, all of them deserve at least one listen through.
Alkaline Trio- Agony & Irony (***½)
Amanda Palmer- Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (***)
The Black Keys- Attack & Release (***)
Chris Walla- Field Manual (***½)
The Dresden Dolls- No Virginia (****)
Flogging Molly- Float (***)
Foxboro Hot Tubs- Stop, Drop & Roll!!! (***½)
The Gaslight Anthem- The ’59 Sound (****½)
God Is An Astronaut- s/t (***½)
The Hold Steady- Stay Positive (****½)
Jack’s Mannequin- The Glass Passenger (****)
Lydia- Illuminate (****)
The Mars Volta: The Bedlam At Goliath (****)
Messhuggah- obZen (***)
Nine Inch Nails- The Sip (*****)
The Raconteurs- Consolers Of The Lonely (***)
Ratatat- LP3 (***½)
R.E.M.- Accelerate (***½)
Rise Against- Appeal To Reason (***)
Rivers Cuomo- Alone II: The Home Recordings Of Rivers Cuomo (***)
The Roots- Rising Down (****)
Senses Fail- Life Is Not A Waiting Room (***)
Sigur Rós- Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (***½)
Slipknot- All Hope Is Gone (***)
Thrice- The Alchemy Index: Vol. III & IV: Air & Earth (*****)
Thursday- Thursday/Envy E.P. (***½)
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Well Happy 2009 kids. Sorry I've been a bit behind on updating the old bloggerino; however, I'm hard at work compiling my best of list for 2008. Suffice to say, it'll take me a few days as I've got some house stuff to take care of.
But while you wait, I got some treats for you...
The first is Nine Inch Nails performing "Terrible Lie" on their most recent Lights In The Sky Tour. Suffice to say, it was one of the most incredible concert experiences I've ever had. Trent Reznor puts on an incredible visual show and this tour was evident of that.
The second is a paper I wrote on music piracy for my media ethics class. I think I did a decent job of outlying the ins and outs of the situation.
Enjoy. Back soon with a comprehensive look at 2008's musical journey.