Latest Reviews

Album Review: Andrew Bird – I Want To See Pulaski At Night

By Ray Finlayson; December 20, 2013 at 3:43 AM 

The phrase “Pulaski at Night” first appeared in Andrew Bird’s music fifteen years ago, back on his debut album Thrills with his now disbanded Bowl of Fire. It appeared on the chirpy, washboard-led “Cock o’ the Walk,” a track fairly (but not completely) detached from Bird’s current style and even more separated from the song where the phrase makes it returns into Bird’s consciousness. The 1998 Bowl of Fire track would be more suited to a 1920’s Charleston routine whereas the lead track to Bird’s new I Want To See Pulaski At Night EP is a testament to the growth and subtle advancement of his violin loop-led style.

Like most instances where Bird reuses a phrase – both lyrical and musical – it gives a clear indication how Bird works at the time. If you consider the transformation Weather Systems’ “I” made into “Imitosis” from 2007’s wistful and woefully understated Armchair Apocrypha, you see a musician unafraid to build and work with more density; “Skin” into “Skin, Is My” shows someone able to deconstruct and even find humour in music from their past. The only instance where Bird falls flat with this technique of renewal/recycling was when he turned “The Confession” into the “The Privateers” on 2009’s Noble Beast, turning it into a flat-rock extended breath. “Pulaski at Night” lands on the better side of this spectrum. It’s nowhere near as fun “Cock o’ the Walk,” sure, but fun and high-spirited hotpot jazz were the name of the game when Bird was playing with his Bowl of Fire. “Pulaski at Night” boasts not only a dynamic sense of movement, but also feels like an important stepping stone for Bird. It’s not his best single track to date – far from it, I daresay – but for any devoted fan, the nuances are worth noting: his voice leans on being shrill at times, unafraid to colour outside the edges of what can often be polite rambling; his spiralling violin motif reinvigorates in a way that recalls the equally important transitionary track “The Trees Were Mistaken” (from the 2007 Solider On EP); and the buoyant rhythm tracks fuse together his folk-ier leanings with drummer Martin Dosh’s innovative textures.

The only real failing that can be put to “Pulaski at Night” is its lyrical content. It doesn’t detract from the song, but rather, just fails add to the fire. While the mention of Chicago city street lamps and light and shadows do make for an almost picturesque image of Bird travelling from city to city on tour, his usual wordplay takes a rest, meaning that avenues of imagination are only ignited so much. But, at the same time, wordplay doesn’t seem to be the point here. If anything, the track comes off as love letter to Bird’s hometown, if not just the experience of touring all over America (and beyond).

Pulaski At Night isn’t a single track affair, though. Surrounding the title track are six instrumental passages written and recorded at the same time, ranging from one to eight minutes long. “Hover I” glides by like something from Peter Gregson’s Terminal, all airy and cast in the light a clear, warm winter day while “Lit From Underneath” boasts whistling that glimmers, like’s Bird’s glockenspiel is hiding somewhere right in the back of the mix. The bookending “Ethio Intervetion” tracks are the most elaborate and expansive things here, clocking in at seven and eight minutes long. They do carry a sound that seems to forward the melodies and ideas explored on the similarly titled Fingerlings 4 track “Ethiobirds.” Of the two, “Ethio Intervention No. 1” is probably just that bit weaker, leaning on being a little cumbersome at time. “Ethio Intervention No.2,” however, seems to mine the work set up on the first track deeper, if not reaching more outwards by playing more with slowed-down tempos.

These six instrumentals are pleasant if not pretty in the usual way an Andrew Bird instrumental track might be (putting aside the more memorable lasting content from his instrumental Useless Creatures album for a moment). The nuance once again comes into play, and there’s plenty of simple touches that fans will appreciate hearing, such as the background piano which tries to keep up with Bird’s pizzicato on “Hover II,” the aforementioned timbre of Bird’s whistling on “Lit From Underneath,” the speckled oriental riff that opens “Ethio Intervention No. 1,” or just the sound of his looping pedal being clicked in real time. If anything the track give context to “Pulaski at Night,” narrating Bird’s mindset at the time of the track’s creation. And “Pulaski at Night” does that too, marking another footstep in Bird’s expansive musical career. If not just showing how much he’s changed since “Cock o’ the Walk,” it eludes to where his muse might take him next.

Album Review: The Almighty Rhombus – Lucid Living

By Ray Finlayson; December 18, 2013 at 6:18 AM 

“TRUE POP” – a phrase worth taking a moment to dissect. Of the two words, “POP” is the more important one here, and when abbreviated, it can often be easy to forget the original meaning. Popular music is liked by the masses and that’s either because it’s easily palatable to those kinds of people who can happily sit and listen to commercial radio all day and not be enraged that the same songs will be played every couple of hours in between incessant irritating adverts, or because it’s got a musical hook. It can be both, of course, and a really great pop song will feature the two. What makes something “true” would be music that stays honest to original beliefs and standards. The real talent comes in creating something that is all of the aforementioned things and also something that’s entirely original.

The phrase “TRUE POP” appears on The Almighty Rhombus’ Facebook page, sat in its Caps Lock glory above a link to the Sudbury’s five piece’s Bandcamp page so people can go and listen to their music. The phrase is somewhat off when describing the band’s output. Sure, there are elements of pop evident in their music – chirpy and friendly guitar riffs, happy-go-lucky vocal harmonies – but because of their nostalgic streak and their desire to go beyond just playing to crowd who would likely question any performer who wasn’t wearing a shirt and sensible shoes, the Almighty Rhombus can’t be said to make “TRUE POP.” But it’s doubtful they were being sincere when they wrote it. (After all, sincerity and dedication to a particular genre is something seldom seen these days bar a few styles.)

Still, as said, the Almighty Rhombus have plenty on offer that would play well to the large crowds. Even in their most “daring” moments on their debut album Lucid Living, they’re playing it safe: they’re loud, but more in a friendly and rambunctious way; guitars might get fuzzy, but in a warmly fuzzy way, like a pair of decrepit old shoes that fit perfectly. And while they might have an appealing likeable sound when listening, the real problem lies in that none of it is deeply rewarding or hugely memorable.

Lucid Living takes off where The Almighty Rhombus EP left off, albeit toning the feverish excitement down a mark or two. One might have assumed that on their debut the band might have turned things up to 11, but instead they sound like they’ve turned down to 7 or 8. Consequently, the best moments from the album aren’t likely to bowl you over completely; the cohesion is still there, but there’s an infectious impetus missing. If you take a song like “Down South” or the lively chorus of “Butane Brain,” then you’ve got the perfect example of all the aforementioned descriptions. “Down South” opens the album on a few distorted bass notes (perhaps playing homage to the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”), before skittering along to an upbeat guitar chug chorus with plenty of Beach Boys-esque ooo-ing on offer. It’s a good starting point that won’t make you want to turn off, but at the same time it hardly breaks the door down. The album follows suit, often tempering the vivacity in what sounds like a bid to come off like they’re keeping their cool.

All this is rather debasing, which is a shame because Lucid Living isn’t unpleasant to listen to. Instead it suffers the dreaded fate of being mostly mediocre. No one is likely to deject any track here, but no track here is likely to halt the conversation at a party to get the name of the band. You could sit and listen to “Fluorescent” or “Summer Dreams” happily, even nodding your head along, but their impressions aren’t lasting. And there doesn’t even feel like there is something specific to latch onto and blame. Mike Kenny’s vocals can sound limited or blank-faced at times, but the music does plenty to fish him out of sounding entirely detached. Much like the video to “Blank” depicts, Kenny is in the foreground, almost deadpan in his delivery as the rest of the band do a bunch of other fun stuff right behind him. The word “lucid” in the album title might bring to mind the idea of dreams in which the dreamer is in control, but Lucid Living has a strange disconnect. Interpreted another way, the title might suggest a clear and luminous state of being, but even when those flashes happening in the music, they don’t sound nearly as joyful or life affirming as one might hope.

I complained last time that The Almighty Rhombus EP felt all too brief at twelve minutes, and even though Lucid Living verges on being three times as long, it still feels like it’s lacking; it’s easy to finish listening to the album and feel like you either missed something or didn’t quite get served as hearty a dose of the Fang Island/Yo La Tengo-like joy guitar energy you might have hoped for. There are moments which do sound like the band are reaching outwards, unafraid to let loose (the psych-out final minute of “Fluorescent”), or work more a bit more expansively with the ebb and flow of their music (the penultimate “No I Won’t”). But as much as I want to speak up about the album, I can’t but point out other flaws, like the questionable sonic details (the faint muffling of guitars being played between tracks, the irritatingly high pitch of the dissonant guitar that finishes off “No I Won’t”) or the tepid and forgettable lyrical content. If the content felt more assured, made more of an impression, or even just veered more closely to something that could be rightfully assigned the tag “TRUE POP,” then the misgivings could be more easily forgiven. Lucid Living, however, doesn’t hit the mark enough to give it this redemptive quality.

Album Review: Sunwolf – Angel Eyes EP

By Ray Finlayson; December 13, 2013 at 4:23 AM 

At their hearts, punk songs are often just pop songs performed with a free spirit and finger to surrounding crowd. Washington’s Sunwolf have the middle finger part down before they’ve even played a note (see the above cover to their Angel Eyes EP), and thankfully they bring all the free spirit into their songs in their performance and disposition. On the surface Sunwolf songs aren’t about anything too serious, and tend to verge on the gripes (or joys) of a relationship. “I can’t remember when we first met/I guess it means I was all you could get,” lead singer Rob Tifford snarls on “Fire Breathing Tiger.” He doesn’t sound too bothered either way.

Specific lyrical content aside for a moment, a Sunwolf song is mostly about having a good time and capturing a communal if not fraternity-like spirit. Leader of these empowering singalong tracks is first single and opening track “Push It,” which captures everything you could ever really want from a punk/pop song: easy lyrics you can shout along to; carefree attitude running through its veins; a guitar solo that raises the bar further; danceable strut. Wait, danceable? Okay to be honest, “Push It” doesn’t hold onto the punk part of it roots as it drops them to be something much more likeable to a mass audience in the same way a 1990s’ song might swagger along, not indebting itself to any particular genre. In Sunwolf’s case, it’s worth it; “Push It” is insanely likeable, catchy, and replayable for the moments of your life you want a soundtrack to help accentuate the good feelings of. It’s only failing is that it sets the bar too high for the other five track here. They made good attempts at matching it, if not trying to reach the same place via a different route, but never quite hit that peak.

Still, Angel Eyes is enjoyable, never really falling into an unlikable moment. The brevity helps: nothing is more than three and half minutes long, and the majority of the tracks here cut a minute off that time. “Fire Breathing Tiger” could easily do another lap or two once it reaches its final moments, but instead cuts hastily to “Dr Misery” which tries injecting a little more fury into the mix to reach that aforementioned high point. Dissecting any of the tracks with any great details is probably the worst thing you could do as a lot of them simply get by with energy and a charming punkish demeanour. Comparing and contrasting also shines light on the fact that these tracks are inherently similar in ways that doesn’t sound too original on paper: they’ll reach for a raucous chorus, throw in a guitar solo or an acapella break, and otherwise get by with a feverish bout of guitar playing. Again, the brevity is helpful in that it darts you from one camera angle to the next before you can get bored, but when you consider it on any kind deep level, you realise that everything is aimed at the same focal point.

Tifford occasionally eludes to something a little darker, like the abusive relationship-insinuating “Dr Misery,” but his couplets elsewhere can drag him down more quickly than the length of one of the song’s guitar solos. “If I was you/ And you were me/ Together now/ What could we be?” goes the repeated sentiment of “If I Was You.” There’s not much hiding there, if anything at all, but musically it’s perfectly likeable, if not somewhat innocuous. But even “Push It” boasts lyrics that don’t scream any depth, yet they still stand taller than everything else here because they’re matched to the most likeable melodies and capturing of carefree nonchalance. Once “Push It” finishes, a small party of noises erupts, and it sounds like a genuine moment of joy captured in the studio. When the same thing happens at the end of “Head Down,” it seems to act like a reminder, trying to re-emphasize that Angel Eyes was created with high spirits. I’m sure it was – the music acts as a testament to that – but it’d be better if they could just capture that in the music instead of having to giving it context.

A word I’ve used a lot here is “likeable” – which hasn’t been deliberate for the most part. It’s hard to give “Push It” anything less than two thumbs up, but as a whole, breaking out the superlatives for Angel Eyes seems too much. At the same time, though, you’d probably be accused of being needlessly morose or lacking the right kind of disposition if you didn’t jump about or at least bop your head to the tracks here. There’s a good time to be had here, but at the same time, there’s probably a better time being had somewhere else.

Album Review: Mesita – Future Proof

By Ray Finlayson; December 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Discouragement is something that has unfortunately had a regular presence in James Cooley’s musical career. Cooley – the one man behind the Mesita moniker – has spent a good portion of his musical career trying to attain a particular sound and goal: in 2009 he started out trying to record and release his second album, but it wasn’t until two years and two EPs later that the final product came about. The sprightly No Worries and the still effervescent and brilliant Living/Breathing were attempts to wipe the slate clean, to start over and refocus on the task at hand. (Here’s To Nowhere finally got it’s long awaited release in 2011, and far from disappointed.) Come Cooley’s third album, The Coyote, he was streamlining his work process – a process which has carried forward into 2013 when he was preparing his fourth album, Future Proof. But when it looked like we might be treated to a second Mesita album with the space of a year, discouragement reared its ugly head again.

After once again starting over with the release of the XYXY EP earlier this year, Cooley soon found himself back on track. Months later his fully-fledged new sound of twinkling pianos, electronic beats, and near-desperate streaks of humanity came into life; Future Proof indeed proved to be immune to the trails ahead of its initial inspiration.

Although Future Proof should be praised for the devoted effort put into it, any merits from listeners will come from whether or not you’ve been keeping track of Cooley over the years. New listeners will find it hard to not to be fixated by the juxtaposition of the forward march of opening track “No Future” as Cooley sings blankly that “There is no future left for me.” That or they may well be dazzled by the seven-minute “Creature” which sparkles with a loop that has it sounding like organic machinery. Or there’s “XYXY” and “Hostages,” which return from the XYXY EP and act an essential centrepiece duo, capturing some of the most affecting sentiments in the utterance of a phrase which sounds like it came about from an everyday conversation: “You are not the thing i’ve been dreaming of.” For the most part, Future Proof manages to hit on an exact art of being nothing less than interesting on a musical level, and truly heartbreaking on a lyrical plane.

Those familiar with Mesita’s output will know most of these songs already (Cooley released most of the tracks upon their original completion), and only three tracks are entirely new: “Damage” flickers away with acoustic and electric stabs into the dark before sounding ten times heavier once a electrified horn blast submerges the song; aforementioned “No Future” appropriately bridges the gap between Future Proof and last year’s The Coyote, beginning with a shuffle of what sound like live drums before pushing forward with a guitar that sounds like it’s trying it best not to move out of line; and closing track “Nothing” is a final statement about once again letting the ties of the past unwind and unknot themselves before finishing on a weightless few piano notes. “No Future” and “Damage” prove that Cooley is more than capable of playing the long game, and here, injected between material many will likely have become familiar with, they are aces he’s kept up his sleeve until the final reveal.

“Nothing” doesn’t have any real failings, but it suffers from becoming lost to the background after the heavy, tiring couplet of “Vigilant” and “Distance.” These two tracks (“Distance” in particular) repeat an explorative edge that Cooley does well (both on Future Proof and on previous releases), and while “Vigilant” has the fiery bursts of electric guitar to reignite any waning interest, the last minute of the “Distance” can feel like something of superfluous slog to get through. That said, elsewhere the exploration is captivating, if not key to the song and album structure. On the latter half of “XYXY,” Cooley deconstructs the Radiohead-esque piano chords like he’s trying deconstruct the rejection he faced in the lyrics while on “Creature” he melts into the lazy drones as the track slows to a stop.

This navigation through sounds and textures goes hand in hand with the new sound Cooley is sporting here. On Future Proof, gone (for the most part) are the live drums and numerous guitar tracks, and in their place are electronic beats, piano keys, and pressing static bursts of energetic noise. It isn’t a simple case of Kid A syndrome kicking in, though; Cooley has often had these kinds of features in his music, but by packing up and moving to Chicago to literally start anew somewhere else, his live palette became limited. This considered, it’s amazing how widescreen Future Proof sounds; if there was ever a HD Mesita album, this would definitely be it. Cooley might sound lonesome with his lyrics, but it’s like he’s found a new world in which to exist.

It would seem that reinvention is what has had a greater presence in Cooley’s musical life. Here, it can be put down to a focusing on the electronic side of things, which draws new landscapes for both the artist and the listener to explore. Or if you take a track like “Forward,” you can see how he’s taking the same construct of Here’s To Nowhere highlight “Friend of the Horizon” and reimagining it a new context. Getting here might have involved more restarts than Cooley perhaps would have liked, but the end results speak for themselves. Cooley once spoke about how he was told by a teacher that he’d never make a musician of any sort – perhaps his first real dose of discouragement – but he managed to work well past those words. Similarly, in 2013, he’s facing up the realisation that something isn’t quite fitting and refocusing until it does. Future Proof is another piece of evidence attesting that though strenuous for Cooley, the process works.

Album Review: Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On

By Ray Finlayson; November 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Strewn across Spencer Krug’s discography is the mention of long distance relationships. On “Shut Up I Am Dreaming Of Places Where Lovers Have Wings” from his 2006 Sunset Rubdown album, he details a romance with someone who is “on the distant shore” who Krug wants to send “drawings of men with faithful hands [that] will make such good boyfriends” to. Skip forward half a decade (and through many other references) to “Fast Peter” from 2011’s Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, and Krug once again paints a picture of a romance held across a vast distance where the two people involved “only talk on their computers.” All that might well have come to a close on Krug’s third Moonface album, Julia With Blue Jeans On. “Let me take you up these stairs/ Let me take you to my life…[Let’s] set fire to these computers/ We had to use until today,” Krug sings on the wistfully reminiscent “November 2011.” So poignant it is that Krug put a date stamp on it.

Romance has long been a fond theme of Krug’s, and 2011’s slow-burning Heartbreaking Bravery put this in full focus. When recording the album with Finnish band Siinai, Krug found his pen being controlled by his heart in way that was never so up front. In a similar but more devoted and intense manner,Julia With Blue Jeans On is a sobering, honest, and often enlightening record that strings together Krug’s last romance. It creates a picture of the prolific songwriter that seems like it’s been years in the making; all the manic strands of mythology, with noodling guitar lines and bombastic furore all whittle down to the sound of one man singing alone at his piano.

“This album is more optimistic than anything I’ve put out so far as Moonface,” Krug recently related in an interview, and for the most part it can be easy to see why. Although the set up appears to be brazen with sadness, regret, and a deep well of sorrow on the first few listens, spending time with Julia reveals it to be a record that trickles out hopeful beauty across the walls. On the title track he laments one of his most beautiful sentiments that reaches to the heavens and then straight back down to an exact location as a romantic gesture is made from one person to another: “I’d say the only word worth singing is a name/ I’d say the only name worth singing is not ‘God’/ It’s you/ Julia.” Every moment related feels hugely significant, from meeting his love and symbolically setting fire to his music on “November 2011,” to an exchange about birth and death places, where a deeper connection suddenly blossoms (“Barbarian”).

Of course, the sadness is still there after many, many listens, but Krug becomes more and more real with each spin. “I am a barbarian…sometimes,” he sings on “Barbarian,” almost exhaling the last word under his breath. On the closing track “Your Chariot Awaits” he spells out the failing of the relationship (“We got way too close way too quickly”) but what speaks louder (beside the galloping piano melodies) is the line “It’s getting in my dreams.” Anyone’s who ever been in a relationship will know the power the subconscious has in picking up details about someone, only to make us notice them when they’re gone. Still, a sort of optimism shines through, even if he is playing a familiar romantic role: “But I don’t care what they say/ My dreams might say about me/ I need, I need something beautiful to carry/ And you’re all I care about, babe.”

With nothing more than Krug and his piano in your ears, it might appear on the surface (or first assumption) that Julia is a record that thrives on lyrical analysis. And while there’s plenty to dissect here (animal imagery, repeated mentions of God (and the idea of “God”) and the state of being, etc), Krug’s piano arrangements are just as rewarding to pay to attention to. On Sunset Rubdown or Wolf Parade records, his prowess on the keys could often be lost, and while previous Moonface records like Organ Music or the Dreamland EP shows he has a very fine knack for interweaving melodies on top and inbetween each other, Julia reveals the space in between. When the arpeggios start fluttering by, like on the appropriately lethargically paced “Dreamy Summer” or album highlight “Love The House You’re In,” it can feel a little like he’s playing directly from his influences (Rachel Grimes’ beautiful Book of Leaves was a significant inspiration), if not resorting to something a little showy to fill space. Still, there’s variety in the tempos and moods, from the stark pounding chords of “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark,” to the expectant and hopeful key of “November 2011,” which sounds like it’s destined to soundtrack some old 8mm home video footage (much like in the video for “Barbarian”).

There’s a sort of perfection here that stems from imperfection. Unlike previous releases, there are no overdubs here of any kind here, and never does the music ask for any. The songs on Julia exists as themselves, every so often adorned with a moment of sonic detail, but otherwise content in their form, construction, and performance. Occasionally Krug’s voice gets bathed in a little reverb, but he knows when to use it at the right time. Similarly he’s careful not to overuse his sustain pedal, but when he does, it can give the music an almost overbearing and full effect, making it seem like you’re listening to something that should have more instruments or players in the credits.

The album does hit a moment of two of exhaustion: “Julia With Blue Jeans On” and “Love The House You’re In” are the emotional crux and centrepiece, and afterwards, “First Violin” and “Black Is Back In Style” come off reeling in their predecessors light. On “First Violin” Krug even seems to be telling himself to stop and breathe in the lyrics, like it’s all getting ahead of him. It’s also on this final run that Krug resorts to more tangled metaphors and references. Considering the subject matter of the album, it’s not too long before the meaning reveals itself, but come “Your Chariot Awaits,” he wanders off into a few linguistic and referential side streets (mentions of blackbirds, trees with bells) that are hard to follow.

But this is Spencer Krug, and his words have always been loaded in some way or another, whether it be with references that are obvious or not. If new ones crop up here, then chances are, much like the long distance relationship story appears to, they’ll resolve somewhere in the future. Such is Krug’s way with words: deliberately or not, he’s weaving a huge tapestry that makes the author clearer to us. Julia With Blue Jeans On is another section in it and is a damned beautiful, it not great one at that.

Album Review: Oneohtrix Point Never – R Plus Seven

By David Wolfson; November 18, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

For Daniel Lopatin, the process of making music has never been one solely of creation, but also recontextualization. His debut release as Oneohtrix Point Never, 2007’s Betrayed In The Octagon, was composed entirely on the Roland Juno-60 synthesizer; a device that was invented in 1982, brought into the mainstream consciousness by synth-pop groups such as Eurythmics and Duran Duran, and subsequently treated as a relic of a cheesy, bygone era before being repopularized in the mid-2000’s by indie-electronic artists like Phoenix, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Junior Boys. In the midst of this revival, which saw the Juno-60 being used with similar intentions to those it was popularized under, Lopatin arrived with a series of releases (later collected in the Rifts compilation) that recontextualized the instrument by using it to craft spacey, sci-fi indebted analog textures. 2010’s Returnal saw him taking this idea one step further, layering drones on top of each other for dense psychedelic effects and adding noise to the mix; while 2011’s Replica, his breakthrough effort, found Lopatin abandoning the Juno-60 for the most part in order to make sample-based music that refracted images of the past using corrupted loops, underlined by pretty piano melodies and with ’80s television ads as the source material.

That album constituted a considerable reinvention for Lopatin, but, like his earlier work, it also saw him recontextualizing widely-dismissed sounds into completely different functions. It wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia so much as it was in finding new possibilities for these sounds. And now on R Plus Seven, the newest and best release under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker, he’s done it again by returning to synthesizers, along with an assortment of other instruments and tools, for his brightest and most immediate work yet.

At a time when availability has made music more disposable and prone to be taken at face value than ever, R Plus Seven begs to be explored, like the series of rooms implied on the cover, from a conceptual standpoint as well as an outright musical one. Where previous OPN releases explored themes of recyclability, decay, feedback loops and drawing humanity from the digital realm; the focus of R Plus Seven is on morphogenesis, procedural composition and cryogenics. Lopatin does this by presenting R Plus Seven with a piecemeal structure where the majority of tracks consist of one or two recurring motifs that are interrupted by a revolving door of ideas.

Take “Zebra,” for example. The central idea to the first part of the song is a bright, glossy, programmed staccato synth progression that introduces the track before Lopatin brings in processed human voices that ebb and flow along with the main refrain, eventually overtaking it before the main progression comes roaring back. The cycle repeats itself, with stately piano lines and an assortment of samples augmenting the main melody on the second turn, before Lopatin does away with the idea entirely in favor of tense, vibrating percussion, sealed in a static ambient space. After that, the song’s coda consists of chopped synthesizer samples that set the bedrock for a saxophone outro. The lively synth progression in the first part of the song is an exercise in procedural composition, the claustrophobic ambient space of the second part a representation of cryogenics, and the way the song progresses from section to section, with parts building up before splintering off into something completely new, is entirely morphogenetic in form.

There’s a tendency for the kind of experimental electronic music OPN is known for to be dour or serious in tone, but one thing separating Lopatin from his potential competitors is that his music has always explored a wide spectrum of emotions, sometimes within the same song. Although there are moments of undeniable sadness on R Plus Seven, such as the processed chorus that crops up at the end of “Still Life,” there’s also humor inherent in Lopatin’s use of a grunting sample in “He She,” playfulness in the way “Americans” toys with horns and field samples, and so on. From an emotional standpoint, what Lopatin is doing here has much more in common with ’90s IDM acts such as Mouse On Mars or early Boards Of Canada than with current contemporaries like Emeralds or Tim Hecker. While conceptually heavy, the concepts on R Plus Seven are employed in a manner that’s highly enjoyable from a traditional standpoint – you don’t need to understand cryogenics or even know that they’re being portrayed for this album to appeal to you any more than you need to understand the symbolism in a beautiful painting in order to enjoy looking at it.

The most moving moments on R Plus Seven are the ones that release the tension of Lopatin’s most hermetically-sealed compositions, like a cell undergoing cytokinesis: the delicate piano that cracks open the main synth progression in “Zebra,” the sterile organ break that interrupts “Problem Areas,” the disorienting side-chain effect that forms the apex of “Still Life,” and the swelling pipe organ outro of “Chrome Country.” Here, Lopatin excels at what he’s been doing since his first release as Oneohtrix Point Never, and what first brought us to him: drawing feeling out of the digital realm, instead of just channeling it. After fearless reinventions of sound on three consecutive releases, it’s good to know some things never change.

Album Review: Fuzz – Fuzz

By Joshua Pickard; November 10, 2013 at 9:55 PM 

There’s something to be said for the ability to write a really great guitar riff. It’s become something of a lost art in recent years, with digital manipulation and studio polish taking the bite out of many guitar-based bands. Of course, you’ve got your vetted ax slingers like Jack White and Josh Homme (and a smattering of authentic lo-fi garage rockers – I’m looking at you Burger Records), but it’s getting harder and harder to name specific guitarists who bend those strings to their own purpose and aren’t simply rehashing the same progressions that we’ve all heard a thousand times before. We did get a welcome infusion of riff-addled blood when prolific rocker Ty Segall rose to indie prominence some years ago. His many albums under various guises and monikers have veered from traditional garage-pop melodicism to blistering, fret-scorched Nuggets homage and back again without much notice, so it’s difficult to gauge how he’ll approach each release.

But with his latest album – recorded under his new Fuzz moniker – Segall takes a comfortable seat behind the drum kit and is joined by guitarist Charles Moothart (who provided the searing riffs on Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse) and bassist Roland Cosio. This power trio pumps out super-charged anthems which harkens back to the early ‘90s when all you needed to be successful was a collection of fuzz pedals and the ability to play really loud. That’s not to say that Fuzz neglects any of the other aspects we’ve come to associate with Segall’s past projects, but the pedals are on full display and the amps are turned up to 11 – and I really don’t hear anyone complaining.

There’s also a sense that the band wanted to distance themselves from any previous iteration, as they released their first single without an explanation of the band makeup. It was simply a new song by a band called Fuzz, and you quickly got the feeling that they wanted the focus to rest solely on the aesthetic and less on their individual names. But the cat was soon out of the bag and Segall, Moothart, and Cosio were quickly back in the spotlight. Thankfully, Fuzz more than justifies their position there.

From the opening guitar salvo on “Earthen Gates” to the closing distortion-polished tones of “One,” the album relies on its muscle and the band’s sense of restless rhythm to deliver a sprawling collection of riff-based tracks that sit quite comfortably next to Slaughterhouse as one of the most memorable and unabashedly raucous rock records in recent years. It’s difficult to discuss the songs on Fuzz, especially “What’s In My Head” and “Preacher,” without thinking that the band are simply continuing the storied lineage of hard rock juggernauts like Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer – complete with those bands’ often labyrinthine guitar solos and thudding percussive menace. And Segall is a great drummer, whose fills and pounding beats more than stand up to Moothart’s colossal fretwork. It would be a mistake though to assume that Cosio is simply there to provide a guideline for Segall and Moothart to work from – his work is generally far more subtle (though not always) and helps to fashion Fuzz as more than just a Segall-led garage rock group. They’re a band in every sense of the word. Without the interplay between each person, this album simply wouldn’t work.

This band dynamic comes into sharp contrast on one the record’s best tracks, the intricate and thunderous “Loose Sutures.” Moothart tosses off streaks of greased riffage while Segall plays the part of runaway train to Cosio’s engineer. The song is long, elaborate, and a particularly good showcase for the band a whole and as individuals. The length gives them the ability to let each guitar solo unfurl naturally, without exception, and each fill and throbbing bassline is cast out so simply and effortlessly that this song could have just as easily been the result of years experience playing together (which, come to think of it, it sorta is).

But Fuzz – both the band and album – are smart enough to know that you can’t throw everything you’ve got against the studio walls for too long before a sense of musical fatigue sets in. Listeners need variation and a sense that a band can do more than just one thing really well. And while Fuzz could do with a bit more diversity, it’s hard to criticize a record which so completely adopts the sounds of their inspirations and musical forebears. Would I want Moothart to sing a bit more on the record, as he does on proto-metal churner “Raise”? Should Segall come out from behind the drums occasionally and show us a bit of his insular guitar work? Sure, and I have to think that we’ll get our wishes granted on subsequent records. Scoff at them for being a bit too obvious with their name but Fuzz and Fuzz deliver the garage rock roar we’ve come to expect from Segall and Co. And if you’re still not convinced, just wait a few months — I’m sure he’ll have another record ready by then.

Album Review: Snacs – Swim Tape

By Joshua Pickard; November 6, 2013 at 12:01 AM 

New York City producer Josh Abramovici (aka Snacs) makes what could occasionally pass for chill-out music, though it’s far more participatory and dynamic than that simple description might lead you to believe. His slowly turning, amorphous beats and snaking synth-led rhythms recall the work of artists like Neon Indian and Washed Out — but without the often cringe-worthy chillwave tag that people — especially critics — are so apt to apply to anything that features blurry-eyed harmonies and sections of lethargic, half-submerged keyboards. It’s less a nostalgic kick and more the natural development of his own unique interpretation of these sounds. But it’s in the inventive use of distorted samples and twisted R&B aesthetics that sets his latest release, Swim Tape, apart from the current crop of home-spun beat artists and synth sycophants.

The murky brass vibe of opener “Pager (Boo) / Tryna Be” relies heavily on its use of an Akira Ishikawa Count Buffalo Jazz and Rock Band sample that’s been threaded together with a pitch-shifted acapella snippet from Destiny Child’s “Bug A Boo.” The track seems to have been recorded from a thousand feet straight down in the Pacific — as the wobbly, osmotic beats seem to saturate and break through the surface tension of the music. The album continues with the aquatic imagery and rhythms as “Blueberry Part 1” and “Blueberry Part 2” both utilize a sample from Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You” that feels streamed in from what sounds like the Marianas Trench. Pitching the vocals down until they’re barely recognizable (though with that melody, of course they still are), Abramovici constructs a cyclical harmony that runs parallel to itself with a wealth of bubbling synths and thudding beats keeping it from dissolving into some watery ether.

“Threads” opens with a skittering series of synth swatches and clacking percussion, brought together through a reverberating mixture of tenuous beats and viscous intonations. This is the sound of a rave party’s last gasping breathe transmuted and broadcast from the darkest, most lethargic club under the sea. He then opts for a piano-led synthetic cadence on “Pancakes,” turning a buried vocal track against a languorous beat and imbuing it with a blustering strut that wouldn’t feel out of place on James Blake’s recent album. But album closer “Word On The Street” is something completely unique, an amalgamation of distorted vocals from “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey and bits and pieces of soul singer David Ruffin’s “I Miss You” — all bound together with clacking percussion and leisurely oscillating synths that mirror the way in which he experiments with the timbre of her voice and the opaque nature of the melody itself. This type of sound splicing can often go horribly wrong but here it seems more the natural evolution of its combined sounds.

Abramovici may be trailing along in the same smooth glissando wake of artists such as Balam Acab and Holy Other, but his work here displays a distinct musical direction and never feels weighed down with unnecessary baggage. Even his use of somewhat recognizable samples doesn’t take any of the attention away from his composite work; it simply shows that he can assimilate and successfully restructure his influences to serve the interests of his own songs. And while Swim Tape is actually best experienced as one long mix, it is fascinating to see how each segment holds up on its own. Separate from their contextual landscapes, each track creates an environment of muddied synths, lo-fi percussion, and chopped samples — and also allows us brief glimpses into the producer’s often abstract methodology.

The title may conjure images of aqueous rhythms and ebbing tidal workmanship – and to a certain degree, those are apt descriptions — but Swim Tape is far more than the sum of its intermittently incongruous parts. Under his Snacs moniker, Abramovici has created a churning hybrid of electronic textures, R&B swagger, and blissed-out synthwork. Touching on various aspects of half a dozen genres, these songs leave you feeling soaked in dense, nebulous melodies and buffeted by a constantly spiraling array of gauzy keyboards and homemade beats. In fact, he’s really already done the hard work for us. All we have to do is duck our heads under the surface of Swim Tape and enjoy the view.

Album Review: Brahja Waldman’s Quartet – Cosmic Brahjas/Closer to the Tones

By Joshua Pickard; October 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Brahja Waldman has a rare gift among modern jazz composers. He is able to successfully interject a feeling of spontaneity into his compositions. But let me clarify that statement a bit. Jazz is of an inherently improvisational nature, but there are often instances where the music seems to be on rails, where every brush stroke and sax squeal seems oddly predetermined – when in reality the exact opposite is true. But we expect jazz to be of a particular temperament, and so our assumptions guide our opinion of the music to a large degree. And as the truly great jazz tunes tend to vary in their musical approach and never seem to rely on any one set of rhythmic aesthetics, there is a wide margin between artists who simply know how to play their instruments and those who know why these instruments and techniques actually work so well together.

On Cosmic Brahjas/Closer to the Tones, the new double album under the Brahja Waldman’s Quartet moniker, Waldman has recruited a veritable who’s-who of Montreal and New York jazz musicians – including pianist Shadrach Hankoff, tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner, bassist Martin Heslop, drummer Daniel Gelinas, and himself on alto sax. And as is often the case, much of the rhythmic inventiveness of the music comes directly from the way in which these guys feed off each other in the studio. At different points across both records, each musician gets a chance to stand alone (somewhat) and give an intimate performance that seems to be directed pointedly at each individual listener, as if the band were catering to every person who happened to be listening to these songs. And it’s this sense of communal inclusion and active participation that keeps these recordings from simply becoming homogenous scores for piano, sax, bass, and drums. But more often the not, the band rises to a cathartic churn through a dynamic and extraordinary reliance on each other, and this clustered musical mentality allows these two records to unfurl and bloom in unpredictable jazz expulsions.

There are often obvious reasons for artists to release double albums under different album titles – each record could offer separate thematic approaches to the same ideas or perhaps the band simply felt that each set of songs told insular stories, though possibly connected in some subtle way. For Waldman, Cosmic Brahjas andCloser to the Tones are devices through which he and his quartet can explore the ways in which different instruments interact with each other. The biggest differences being that Cosmic Brahjas incorporates piano into its composite rhythms while Closer to the Tones completely forgoes the piano and opts instead for the brash timbre of a tenor saxophone.

Brahjas opening track, “Intro,” does in fact do exactly that – functioning as a roster call for the musicians to introduce themselves. It’s an opening jazz salvo, replete with twinkling Guaraldi-esque piano notes, a shuffling backbeat, layers of thick bass, and squelching sax runs. And while it is far too short (as introductions tend to be), it does act as a melodic warm up for the band – and for us. “Wise Love” is our first real taste of the rhythmic depths that the band effortlessly mines. It’s fascinating and more than slightly stunning to hear the band weave their way together in a coordinated mass of thrumming bass and sharp percussion, not to mention the comprehensive examination of the mercurial relationship between piano and alto saxophone.

But it’s on “My Heart Is A Real Thing” that the band really hits its stride – and the peak of their lively tonal interaction. Inspired by a poem from Bob Holman, the musicians create an energetic atmosphere of impulsiveness and unexpected movement, while repeating the line, “my heart is a real thing” – which becomes something of a mantra during the course of the song. Other tracks like “The Naked Dao” and “Cosmic Dance” have an almost psychedelic feel to them, with instruments contorting into unusual and remarkable positions within the track’s loose framework. Cosmic Brahjas definitely has a more experimental tint than Closer To The Tones, but to be honest, that’s a somewhat untenable description as this genre is rife with music that strains against convention while incorporating surprisingly innovative aesthetics. But for the purposes of comparing these two records, it works about as well as anything.

On Closer To The Tones, Waldman — with the addition of tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner and the loss of pianist Shadrach Hankoff — delve deeply into the heart of traditional jazz, with a few minor detours. And while Cosmic Brahjas may be more initially interesting, it’s Closer To The Tones that feels far more in depth and steeped in the storied history of the genre. Tracks like “Victoria Day” and “Elliott” often veer dangerously close to the mainstream rhythms common to swing jazz, but the band twists and shapes these sounds into something more closely resembling the soundtrack to some gaudy, 1930’s speakeasy than the banal repetition of some modern jazz resurgence. But similar in execution to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, the band plies these long-held traditions with an eye toward the future — toward some amalgamated potential that has yet to be explored.

And while there isn’t a track so wonderfully imaginative as “My Heart Is A Real Thing” on Closer To The Tones, there are tracks such as “Pleistocene” and “Interpretation” that stretch the limits of the individual musicians, and you can practically hear the song pulling apart at the seams. But just when you think the song can’t take any more, it exhales and expands allowing the band room to continue their tonal extrapolations without restriction. Their dedication to the intricate interplay between each other comes to the fore here, as the songs bask in tradition while creating new byways into the last 60 years of jazz music. It’s an ambitious undertaking but Waldman and his fellow musicians seem more than capable of pulling it off — though there is a bit of musical fatigue that sets in after spending time dissecting and absorbing 19 tracks of concentrated rhythmic experimentation.

Is it a demanding experience to a certain degree? I would say yes, and the experience of wading this deep and this long into waters that may be unfamiliar to some listeners will likely be a bit overwhelming. But with records like Cosmic Brahjas and Closer To The Tones, there is no prerequisite knowledge of the genre needed. As intensive and exhaustively traversed as this music is, it could still be considered a great starting point for someone who isn’t intimately aware of the directed convolution common to jazz music. These songs never come across as exclusive and the music welcomes the attention and active association of its listeners. Brahja Waldman and his musical conspirators may not be as well known as the legacy makers of the ’50s and ’60s, but the dual percussive punch of Cosmic Brahjas/Closer To The Tones places them firmly at the forefront of the modern jazz landscape.

Album Review: Orca Life – Modern Living

By Joshua Pickard; October 24, 2013 at 2:30 PM 

Orca Life is the nom de plume of electronic artist Chris Roberts, and it’s the means through which he explores a hazy cross-section of minimalist ambient rhythms, paired with a more dynamic, circuit-based aesthetic. His experiments often tread upon ground initially covered in the ‘70s by electronic pioneers like Harold Budd and Brian Eno. But for every artist such as Didier Marouani or Droids (or even Tim Hecker, for that matter) who effortlessly mines this vein of often abstract tonality, there are countless artists who fail to provide even a modicum of interesting execution or any sense of creative artistic assimilation. Music that resides in these nebulous regions of rhythmic space must be in a constant state of movement or there is ample likelihood that the music could come across as inert — or worse, just plain boring. Thankfully, the music that inhabits Roberts’ latest record under the Orca Life moniker, Modern Living, seems to reside in a constant state of flux, with subtle, and not so subtle, adjustments being continually made at a brisk clip.

Opening with “Voices,” a song that twists bits of tribal percussion together with dynamic droning rhythms, Roberts eases us into his often hyperactive ambient world with the bare minimum of difficulty. The track plays around with a casual electronic repetition, a cyclical beat and melody that finds no resolve. It’s Roberts turning the music in on itself and finding that the end result places him squarely at the beginning — and it’s a fascinating way to begin our descent into the album. But he also knows that simple repetition can become dull and lifeless quickly, and so he infuses the music with a percolating movement that keeps the music from ever feeling staid or bogged down in simple progressions. “Aquatic” finds him relying a bit too heavily on that sense of stillness but the song is soon pushed forward by a series of electronic blips and bleeps and a static-y melody that pulls itself out from the darkness like some lumbering giant.

Other tracks like “Vacation,” with its glitchy, 8-bit effects, and “Spells,” with its condensed swells of atonal orchestrations, showcase Roberts’ playfulness. It’s hard not to imagine a giant smile plastered on his face as plays through the former and a decidedly mischievous grin during the latter. But he doesn’t simply use these sounds as nostalgic waypoints for us; they build and withdraw in an unending cycle of electronic ebbs and flows. That being said, there are moments when it seems like the music is simply caught in some loop, repeating the notes over and over again until the impetus has completely abated and we’re left with a bit of unintended deja vu. “Bells” comes to mind, with its tropicalia-tinged beats folding back on themselves until we’re left with a disquieting sense of torpidity. Luckily, it’s one of the shorter tracks and is over before making much of a lasting impression. And it leads into “Time,” a curiously effective amalgamation of sharp synth stabs and dollar store percussion that manages to give the record a good, hard caffeinated kick in the head.

It’s difficult to say whether Modern Living is Roberts take on the hum and shuffle of everyday life or simply the rattling sounds of some future-perfect dystopia where everyone lives through hard-wired connections to their surroundings. But what is obvious is the sheer sense of exploration and discovery that fills these tracks. Roberts is continuing an obsession that began years ago and has since pushed him into various areas of ambient and deconstructionist recordings that give us a glimpse at the very foundations of the genres within which he works. With burbling blips and scattered pieces of arrhythmic melodies, Modern Living reveals the circuital underbelly of our lives. And while it may appear to be all frayed wires, sockets, and worn connectors under there, these songs lead directly into a pulsing, chromatic heart. And with the sound of a clanging heartbeat to guide us, Roberts is ready for us to press play.

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