Latest Reviews

Album Review: Carol Kleyn – Return of the Silkie

By Joshua Pickard; September 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

We’re trained to mistrust earnestness – especially in music. This comes mostly from the fact that such earnestness oftentimes appears cloying and dishonest. And that it also might be a part of a larger heartstring strumming agenda that completely betrays the emotions which it strives so fervently to mimic. But sometimes a good heartstring pull is exactly what we need, as long as it’s done well. And harpist Carol Kleyn is there to accommodate us. Of course, if you’re not already familiar with her name, then you’re probably about 30 years too late. But no need to worry, venerable indie label Drag City has our best interests at heart, and with their re-issue of Kleyn’s 1983 record Return of the Silkie, the label is looking to make up for those misspent years.

Return of the Silkie is the third entry in an as-yet-unfinished musical saga which began in 1976 with Love Has Made Me Strongerand continued with 1980’s Takin’ The Time. Drag City re-issued these records back in 2011 and 2012, respectively. They form a detailed story of simple ideals, love, and a longed for freedom from mainstream industry – ideas she gleaned from her time studying at the University of California Santa Barbara in the late 60s. And it was here in college – in her freshman year – that she met psych/folk singer and “One Man Orchestra” Bobby Brown. The two became good friends (and eventually more than friends), and for her 21st birthday, he bought her a harp and she began to play. Her musical travels took her on a tour with Gregg Allmon, had her play a house party for Led Zeppelin (sans Jimmy Page), allowed her to be introduced to Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli, and included some awkward conversations with a young Cameron Crowe in the back of Allmon’s plane – for all intents and purposes, her life had the feel of Woody Allen’s Zelig, prior to that character’s narcissistic break.

But from a life well-lived, Kleyn has been able to extract her own optimistic and buoyant attitudes from this colorful history. And on Return of the Silkie, she carefully layers lyrics concerning love, the need to be free, and philosophies about simple living – and all this in a time when people had begun to drop the altruistic outlook that ran rampant in the 60s, and to a lesser degree in the 70s, and were turning toward a more self-seeking approach to life. But according to Kleyn, the main inspiration for Silkie came from her time nursing injured baby sea lions and elephant seals back to health at “the big red barn in Laguna Canyon.” She even went so far as to record their voices with her own and considered herself “not so unlike the pied piper of Hamlin.”

So Carol Kleyn is a harpist with the heart of a flower child and the indomitable optimism redolent of participants who found themselves entrenched within the “Summer of Love” attitude of the late 60s. But there is more to her and her music than can be gleaned on first listen. Granted, the majority of Return of the Silkie is composed and performed on harp and the main accompaniment is her strikingly otherworldly voice, but beneath this deceptively simple façade is a heart beating in time with the natural world around it.  Her abject earnestness has been hard-won and feels as comforting as the notes which she plies so easily from the strings of her instrument. And while the album is constructed from individual tracks, it feels more like one continuous statement from Kleyn regarding the nature of her surroundings and an understanding of her place within it.

“Return of the Silkie” opens the album with subtle flourishes of found sound recordings and Kleyn’s haunting and ethereal vocalizing – add some loops and vocal effects and you’re nearing Julianna Barwick territory. There are no set lyrics but the intent is clear and the album feels set on its way by the pristine plucks and shimmering waves of her playing. While I’m not purposefully avoiding the Joanna Newsom comparisons, they are obviously there to be made – so you know, have at it. To further connect the ocean atmosphere to the music on the record, Kleyn uses recordings of the ocean tides to bridge each track with one another. There are times when a continuous sample of ocean noise spans multiple tracks but is only audible when the last musical notes fade out at the end of the songs. The brief barking of sea lions and seals can be heard intermittently broaching the music across a handful of tracks.

That’s not to say that the record is homogenous in a dull or unexciting way. The music hums with the life of its surroundings, with tracks like “Iaqua” and “Lorelai” being downright gorgeous, as tendrils of plucked notes weave themselves throughout her airy vocals. “Hello Mister Drifter” tells the story of someone who is merely passing through the world, having been to different places and having seen many things that other people can only dream of, while “Land Voyage” is a shorter instrumental piece that holds one of the album’s most memorable melodies and is over far too quickly. Others like “Storm Over Paradise” and album closer “And Back Again” feel cyclical, with Kleyn’s harp expressing a depth of emotion through a varied repetition of melody and structure. While you might expect the music to feel weightless and flighty, there is a grounded knowingness of the world to suggest that Kleyn knows more than she’s letting on. With an album so fraught with possibly misconstrued altruism and sincerity, maybe this straightforwardness itself can be seen as something analogous to the counter-culture ideals from which these songs so readily draw breath.

Album Review: Herbert – Bodily Functions (Reissue)

By Ray Finlayson; January 24, 2013 at 12:02 AM 

In the cooking pot of electronic music simmering away for the past decade or so, Matthew Herbert has been one of the main stock flavours. His 2001 release, Bodily Functions, however, marked a landmark in what his way of working could produce and also what electronic music could be capable of. Working to a self-constructed manifesto (or his “Personal Contract for the Composition of Music” – PCCOM for short), Herbert limited himself (and still does–but more on that later) to using entirely original sounds. “The use of sounds that exist already is not allowed…No drum machines. No synthesizers. No presets.” With those kinds of rules in place, most artists wouldn’t even bother jumping into the cooking pot. If anything it shows that Herbert is more likely the water itself then–if not the pot that’s holding everything together.

Arguably, it’s strange to put constrictions in place that limit an artis, especially when there’s no real need to do so. But that’s the kicker: Matthew Herbert hasn’t really been making “electronic” music in any sort of traditional sense since he put together his manifesto. All his sounds are either live instruments or samples of noises he’s taken from his subject matter. He challenges himself to create melodies, textures, rhythms, beats, and just sound itself. He takes the elements of Musique concrete and gives it a modern spin.

Reissued on its tenth anniversary, Bodily Functions still sounds pristine, careful, intriguing, mysterious, and wonderful. It’s seems strange to describe the actual music as half of the fun with Herbert’s music is experiencing it. You might hear what sounds like traditional drum machines, but you’re more likely to be hearing the sound of doors being slammed, the scraping of someone’s knuckles, or the contents of a handbag turned into percussion. Nothing is as you expect it to be, and close listening rewards this, allowing detail to trickle into your ear, for new sounds to be heard with each listen.

Nonetheless, the album still sounds great from a distance. The beats here (whatever they are) drive most of the songs, and the album plays out like a comedown house compilation. Nothing beats you over the head, but you could certainly move to a track like “Foreign Bodies,” “You Saw It All,” or “The Audience.” The latter track in particular still sounds tremendous, building higher and higher with twin female vocals playing off each other like a devil and angel on the shoulder of someone conflicted. Eventually it spreads out smoothly when the chorus comes around, which feels like an unexpected maneuver in the song with each listen, as you half expect it to soar and lose control. “It’s Only” is also worth mentioning, as it introduces the listener to the world of Bodily Functions properly (after the brief, but beautifully sad “You’re Unknown To Me”). It takes each step carefully, sounding like it’s a living being itself, exhaling with a (heart)beat that keeps the whole thing tied together as, what sounds like, neurons fire at the brain in the background. It’s a landscape as much as it is a portrait.

What Bodily Functions stands best as, perhaps, is a masterclass in fusion. Nestling between these “electronic” tracks is a near equal amount of smooth, lounge jazz. It can catch you by surprise as Herbert’s use of complex time signatures and the occasional polyrhythms means that the jazz elements slide in nicely between everything else. But it really works its way into the surroundings wonderfully so that even when the instrumental “About This Time Each Day” sounds perfectly in place even though it’s a jazz band playing a sorrowful Bill Evans & Jim Hall blues take.

All of Herbert’s delicate “found-sound” looping and sampling, accomplished compositions, and instrumental backdrops are held together by one voice, though. Herbert’s former wife Dani Siciliano takes centre stage for most of the tracks here and her voice is a sultry, inviting one that fits perfectly into all the human machinery and jazz playing happening behind her. The lyrics are also to be noted, too, as they seem to describe the rise and fall of a human infatuation with another, from the aforementioned “You’re Unknown To Me” to “Addiction,” which gets off by describing the act of getting off (“Turn me on and watch me go/straight and narrow, nice and slow/ Push me over, see me spin/ Watch me fight the pull within”). It’s easy to read each line as either a reference to the mere human reaction via the titular “bodily functions,” but it’s easy to interpret it all as a sort of sound staging of the downfall of a relationship (after all, Siciliano is Herbert’s former wife).

The 2012 reissue of the album comes equipped with a disc of remixes and for the most part they build upon the material well. While I don’t think many are sticking to Herbert’s optional manifesto rule that remixes should be completed only using sounds from the original tracks, it’s interesting to see how others have transformed them. Jamie Lidell turns “The Audience” into something pretty much entirely detached from the original, singing in his usual friendly tone backed by a track that sounds like it’s something culled from his own recording studio floor. Dave Aju sounds like he’s reversing the melodies from “Foreign Bodies” and it comes off as an intriguing transformation of the original while Matmos cuts of the vocals on “The Audience” moreso and creates a new song for himself, and although it’s not quite as captivating as its source, its jagged edges and contrasting múm-like twinkles make it worth a listen. The best remixes come on the last third of the disc as they morph into a great playlist, full of driving cut-and-pasted percussion and titbits that don’t distract too much nor seek to exploit the “weird” element of Herbert’s original sounds.

While it’s welcome to have Bodily Functions in the limelight again, the full package feels a bit lacking. A disc of remixes is welcome (and expected, if anything) but what would have made this a fuller picture would have been more reworking or alternate takes from Herbert himself, like “Back To The Start” (which is a compilation take from 2006, around the time of 100lbs, oddly enough). And even if there aren’t b-sides to put out, a write-up or just some more extensive linear notes would have gone down a treat. The artwork is cool (words make up images like eyes and hearts) but it feels like another standard issue folding CD case when you don’t take into consideration the quality of the music itself.

Nonetheless, Bodily Functions still stands up by itself. It’s an exemplary album that here shows it has more than definitely stood the test of time. It also sounds great when you consider the fact that Herbert is working in much the same way, creating albums composed entirely of noises from a pig (2011’s One Pig), or objects bought from a supermarket (Tesco, under his Wishmountain moniker). At the very least, a reissue of Bodily Functions makes it clear to those perplexed by the name Matthew Herbert and why he’s regarded in such good terms (if not owning a legendary status). Thinking about it now, Herbert isn’t the water or the stock in the pot; he’s the guy recording the sound of the water boiling and making great music from it.

Album Review: Chris Darrow – Artist Proof (Reissue)

By Joshua Pickard; January 23, 2013 at 12:02 AM 

Everyone wants to believe they’ve found that great lost album from whatever year and in whatever genre and from whatever band. People pride themselves on staying ahead of the curve and being the first to discover an album long relegated to the trash heap or some musty attic of some older relative. This sense of discovery has led to many of the great musical reclamations in the past decade, so I can’t fault people too much for feeling this way. I’ve been guilty of this numerous times as I’ve come across interesting records filed away under some table in the local record store and felt that someone besides myself should hear it—needed to hear it. But I don’t have the full bore support of a major independent label behind me, and so sometimes, it’s better to defer to those with the means to ferret out these lost masterpieces.  

Artist Proof from Chris Darrow is the latest in a string of reissues/compilations from Drag City Records that attempts to mine the fertile remains of 60’s and 70’s folk rock—though Darrow hews much closer to the countrified rock of bands like The Byrds and The Band than the folk-psych musings of fellow Drag City reissuees Tony, Caro & John or Gary Higgins. And while Artist Proof never quite lives up to the expectations of being a masterpiece, it is a great example of how the country rock genre developed in tandem with the folk scene. You could even toss in a smattering of roots rock tendencies and you’d have a great idea of the sound that Darrow helped to develop and pioneer.

What we’re looking at here is an amalgamation of the Laurel Canyon folk/rock scene with the twang of Appalachia bluegrass (so, The Band basically). His close association with and tenure in bands like The Byrds and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as semi-obscure 60’s psych rockers Kaleidoscope, kept him attuned to the many lines of music that were still reeling from the creative resurgence of the 60’s and 70’s and which led to his not unsubstantial contributions to those genres. But for all the talk of pioneering sounds and musical progenitor status, if the songs on Artist Proof weren’t worth a second listen, Darrow would have continued to languish in relative obscurity. Thankfully, that isn’t the case, and from the opening track, Darrow sets to the task of creating his own vision of bucolic American folk music.

The influences and perceptive associations that most of us have in regards to folk and country music are brought to the fore very quickly, as opening track “Beware of Time” feels pinched from Buffalo Springfield Again or possibly the b-side to some single off DéjàVu from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. There’s nothing terribly novel about the song; it sounds like the prototypical country rock song. But the more time that’s invested, the more the song unravels and reveals how effortlessly complicated it really is—especially notable is the almost frenetic fiddle work from Darrow himself. Other tracks like “The Sky Is Not Blue Today” and “Lovers Sleep Abed Tonight” fall into the decidedly ballad-y area of country rock, and if Nick Drake ever had an urge to make an album with Gram Parsons, then these songs sound like the result of some drunken grope-fest between the two in a dark studio. There’s even a little Jim Croce-esque piano jaunt in the form of “Cocaine Lil,” a short, almost goofy song about the effects of the titular drug. And for the most part, the album maintains an overriding sense of timeless creativity and forward momentum that keeps it from ever getting bogged down in meaningless nostalgia.

The few songs here that do show their age and aren’t quite as engaging–and to be honest, probably never will be regardless of how many times I hear them–don’t necessarily drag the album down but do jolt us out of the “lost masterpiece” mindset. These two songs, “New Zoot” and “The Show Must Go On” are conveniently set back-to-back and makes looking over them that much easier. Besides literally being a song about buying a zoot suit, “New Zoot” never seems to find a good grasp on its melody and the electric guitar just wanders around aimlessly looking for a better song. And the rather mundane platitudes expressed on “The Show Must Go On” do Darrow no favors when viewed in the context of the rest of the songs. While the bonus tracks—just studio/home demos of Artist Proof tracks—are interesting as a way of seeing how the official tracks developed, they really don’t add much muscle to the disc and seem more a way to artificially extend the length of the album. But it is a reissue and so they are expected, though quite unnecessary.

There is a laid-back sense of progression on the album that rewards multiple listens, preferably with the windows down and the sun sitting at 12:00. The excellent, slithering slide guitar that permeates most of the album almost demands some expanse of deserted highway. In the end though, the songs on Artist Proof may prove to be a bit too earnest for the casual indie music fan. An argument could be made that the countrified music that Darrow peddles feels too familiar, or too indebted, to other better known artists. And while that line of thinking may have firm grounding superficially, it loses any semblance of relevancy once you realize how much Darrow actually contributed to the development of these specific musical tropes. For every band like The Byrds or Buffalo Springfield who maintain a critical and commercial viability throughout their tenure together, there are always forgotten artists who seem destined to pine away in some musical background where their actually significant contributions almost seem like afterthoughts. Drag City is going a long way in restoring many of these lost artists’ reputations with their series of reissued, out-of-print records. And just like Gary Higgins or Tony Caro & John, Chris Darrow is one more artist whose work needed to be heard and by more than just those who knew him well or who happened to find his record buried under some table in a local record store.  

Album Review: The Weeknd – Trilogy (Reissue)

By Craig Jenkins; January 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM 

Abel Tesfaye is a man out of time. The Weeknd straddles the line between 20th and 21st century sensibilities, melding the problems, drugs, and music of both into a project that seems very of-the-moment and coyly referential at the same time. The Weeknd’s pharmaceutical generation ennui calls back to both rave culture pill mania and Southern promethazine worship, and the music doses ‘80s sophisti-pop and ‘90s R&B slow jams with traces of trap, EDM, and indie rock. While the music first disseminated into the music-loving public’s consciousness through an impossibly web-savvy shell game, Abel’s controlled trickle of new music created a series of mass simultaneous listening events around each new “mixtape” ripped straight out of the pre-internet monoculture. The Weeknd’s trek from shadowy internet entity to sought-after major label feature artist and festival circuit draw might be complete, but he left us a document of the ride in Trilogy, a brashly remastered box set of 2011’s House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence featuring a handful of bonus tracks. This kind of remaster campaign is normally reserved for albums that have had decades to sink into the national consciousness as is, introducing a shock-of-the-new, hearing-it-again-for-the-first-time element, and while the oldest of the Trilogy material has only been around for a year and a half or so, the differences in the new mixes can still be jarring.

Abel’s vocals are up front at all times now, and all of the backing tracks are imbued with a widescreen clarity. Drums are turned way up across the board. The defiantly rockist House of Balloons comes out sounding more electronic, most noticeably on “Wicked Games” and “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls,” whose programmed drums now overpower more organic elements in the mix. The shambolic chain gang stomp that anchors Thursday’s title track comes to the fore, and the same tape’s “Life of the Party” further accentuates the Reznor-esque industrial clang and clatter of the percussion. Echoes of Silence’s “The Fall” is transmogrified from “Cry Little Sister” tribute to a glacial, Gothic shoegaze blowout. The stately boom bap of “Same Old Song” is rendered sharper and more metallic. The new mixes aren’t always definitive (especially since House of Balloons’ “What You Need” loses the Aaliyah sample that absolutely made the song), but when they make quirky flourishes like the horn section in “The Birds Pt. 2” or the disembodied robot harmonies in “Gone” suddenly devastating, they more than justify a second trip to Abel’s abyss.

That is what this is, after all, is a graceful swan dive into the abyss. Played in sequential order, The Weeknd’s triptych reveals connective thematic tissue not evident upon ingesting each piece separately over a year. Early on, there’s a kind of innocence about House of Balloons’ relentless hard partying and sexual impropriety. But tales of partying with the blinds closed after the sun comes up and stumbling out of cabs after dawn have become something more sinister by the end of Thursday, whose “Gone” and “Rolling Stone” find the narrator partying as a way of coping, and obsessing over seratonin levels. By Echoes of Silence, the using is self-destructive, and the sex, almost Faustian, as evidenced by a tone-setting cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” and “Initiation,” a dubstep tinged “Ain’t No Fun If The Homies Can’t Have None” for the new millennium that is delivered with none of the humor of the original. Echoes of Silence’s title track closes out the set on a nakedly mournful note of rejection. On a certain level, Trilogy is the story of a young man losing his morals, his sobriety, his dependence, and finally, his appeal to the opposite sex.

Trilogy takes one of the more singular bodies of work of the new decade and gives it a very modern bout of premature re-evaluation, image curating and real-time mythologizing, but unlike the wave of gratuitous album rerelease packages flooding the market every fourth quarter, we get revealing new mixes, enticingly stark packaging and artwork, and a couple of quality bonus tracks out of the deal. It goes to show that Abel and company’s genre-busting vision of R&B was even more deliberately charted out than it appeared at first pass. That one of the more genius new artist rollout campaigns in recent memory should result in over a hundred thousand units sold of a trio of releases that were given away for free a full year prior goes to show that The Weeknd might not have mystery on his side anymore, but he does have a fully formed musical identity and a massive, dedicated fanbase to fall back on.

Album Review: Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney – Ram (Reissue)

By Henry Hauser; August 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Ram, Paul McCartney’s ’71 collaboration with his late wife Linda, has the former Beatle seamlessly oscillating between electrified blues, psychedelic flourishes, and catchy pop vistas reminiscent of Phil Specter’s wall of sound. Deftly remastered to highlight the subtle intricacies of the LP’s mesmerizing, melodic verve and crafty time signature shifts, the 2012 reissue plainly warrants a revisit to this cult classic. And for the fanatics blessed with deep pockets, there’s a “Special Edition” release featuring eight bonus cuts, as well as a “Deluxe Edition Box Set,” which contains four CDs, a DVD, a hundred-plus page booklet, prints, facsimiles lyric sheets, a photograph book, and download link to all of the material. The Box Set will set you back about $150.

Echoed by a frolicsome chorus on opening track “Too Many People,” McCartney brings to our attention a slew of polarizing maladies: “Too many people going underground / Too many reaching for a piece of cake…Too many hungry people losing weight.” Atop tinny percussion and playfully rambunctious instrumentals, the singer counsels us to shun pigeonholes and demagogues in favor of authentic individuality: “Too many people preaching practices / Don’t let them tell you what you wanna be!”

On call-and-response ditty “3 Legs,” steadfast grit and the promise of salvation peak out from behind downtrodden, bluesy guitars: “When I fly above the cloud / Well when I fly, when I fly, when I fly, when I fly above the crowd.” Driven by a soothing ukulele, titular track “Ram On” features blithe whistling alongside soft hues of dewy-eyed contentment. “Dear Boy” combines Paul’s simplistic lyrics of heartsick regret with a stiff piano, woodblock percussion, and Linda’s opaque, haunting backup vocals: “I guess you never saw, dear boy / That love was there / And maybe when you look too hard, dear boy / You never do become aware.”

Eclectic overture “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” weaving together cheeky, psychedelic verses with the irresistible sing-along reflex of an infectious pop chorus, achieves a unique communal cadence. Leading off with Sir Paul’s dutiful, falsetto laced apology to a wronged kindred, sparse, teardrop guitar lines drape over a summer rain’s tranquil pattering and the gentle rumble of rolling thunder. As the clouds part, the calming storm is replaced by trippy telephonic effects, oddball comic interjections, and the escalating energies of a brisk violin. Bebop trumpeter Marvin Stamm’s festive, blithe flugelhorn solo and the sounds of chirping songbirds catapult the track into its boisterous, anthemic chorus. Paul and Linda joyously chant: “Hands across the water / Heads across the sky!” Covering twelve distinct segments in less than five minutes, this schizophrenic cut scored McCartney his first #1 US hit as a solo artist.

Whimsical “Long Haired Lady” features the gorgeous orchestration of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra section reappears on “Back Seat of My Car,” as the singers deliver unabashedly naive claims of infallibility: “Oooh oh oh oh, we believe that we can’t be wrong!” Self-deprecating “Smile Away” has McCartney sporting a silly grin in the face of social degradation. Endearingly sentimental folk-pop “Heart of the Country,” championing the spiritual purity of rural life to the tune of delicate acoustic finger picking and playful scat, has the singer yearning to break from the hustle bustle of urban decay to get “a good night’s sleep / Livin’ in a home / In the heart of the country.”

Although the bulk of the eight supplemental cuts on the Special Edition reissue are essentially expendable, “Another Day” and “Oh Woman, Oh Why” are clear exceptions. “Another Day” is a solitary tale of mundane monotony interspersed with touching glimmers of hope. Merely staying alive is a perennial struggle amidst chronic bouts of depression and days spent in “the office where the papers grow.” The poor girl can only reach for another cup of coffee to keep from dozing off, as her thoughts wander to the day when “the man of her dreams comes to break the spell.” Although the song ends with peppy instrumentation and carefree vocals, we sadly know that her knight in shining armor will never arrive. “Oh Woman, Oh Why,” a rueful cut brimming with agony and regret, pairs the singer’s pleading caterwaul with a slide guitar and the unmistakable echo of a shotgun: “Oh woman, oh where, where, where, where, where / Did you get that gun/ Oh what have you done / Woman what have you done.”

The remainder of unreleased ditties and b-sides, including kitschy, buttery “A Love For You” and jaunty “Little Woman Love,” although aurally appealing, are ultimately derivative and bland. But self-indulgent “Rode All Night” really crosses the line. Leading with coarse, scratchy riffs, the track plays as a misguided attempt at adapting Mississippi Delta Blues. Across the song’s excruciating 8 and a half minutes, McCartney delivers a painfully generic and repetitive appeal to break free from our paralyzing inner demons by fully abandoning all ties and obligations.

Remastered at Abbey Road by the same team of audio engineers that handled The Beatles’ re-releases, Ram’s 2012 reincarnation sounds impeccable. Though the bonus tracks don’t pack much punch, the LP’s dozen original cuts, crowned by the breakthrough sensation “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” arguably make this LP McCartney’s seminal solo effort.

Album Review: My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything / Loveless / EPs 1988-1991 [Reissues]

By Edwin Shaw; May 9, 2012 at 12:01 AM 

It seems somehow disturbing to finally have the My Bloody Valentine reissues. After a gestation period which made the original recording of Loveless look like an example of Minutemen-style frugality, and including an alleged two-year hiatus waiting for Kevin Shields to finish the liner notes, that these records are finally around seems like a triumph in itself. It isn’t Chinese Democracy, but more than four years from announcement, no matter how good the remaster, seems a tad slow. There’s another catch, too: what was apparently once meant as a four-disc set for the EPs has been trimmed down to just two, collecting only the band’s last four EPs along with some rarities. That has to go down as an opportunity missed, as there’s a wealth of great material on the earlier EPs, which remain frustratingly difficult to find except on some vinyl compilations of dubious legality (which is not to say that I don’t recommend them). Maybe it’s due to Kevin Shields’ understandable unwillingness to play up the stereotyped twee-pop image of those EPs, but it’s a shame in what looks like such an all-encompassing project not to have the sheet-metal psychedelia of “Lovelee Sweet Darlene” or the necrophiliac pop of “Paint a Rainbow.” That minor gripe aside, along with the omission of a vinyl reissue, these reissues do mainly live up to the prolonged anticipation.

The EPs collection is something of a mixed bag, as is the case with most similar odds and ends sets. The EPs themselves, especially You Made Me Realise, are (like all three of these releases) pretty much essential for anyone with any kind of interest in guitar-based rock. As well as pointing the way forward to the more famous albums, both You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss showcase some of MBV’s best songwriting. You Made Me Realise is the more innovative of the two, showing a lot of progression from the band’s previous records. The title track turns the fuzzy pop formula of the band’s previous work upside down, with suspended chords hammered repeatedly home with unrestrained force. The rest of the EP tones down the violence a bit, with Thorn providing another indiepop highlight, and cookie-cutter template for plenty of copyists, along with the trademark MBV touch of combining innocent-sounding vocals with the most graphic lyrics. Feed Me With Your Kiss (not an EP proper but an extended single from the Isn’t Anything sessions) provides more of the same progression.

The other two EPs collected here, Glider and Tremolo, are different in that they feel like complements to the albums rather than stepping-stones. Where You Made Me Realise and Feed Me With Your Kiss felt like the products of a band developing its sound faster than they could get it on tape, always moving forward toward the same goal, these EPs are more appendices, interesting curiosities but less necessary. Each has a song from Loveless (with an interesting extra dreamy instrumental section on the end of the Tremolo version of “To Here Knows When”), but the feel is very different to what they’d achieve on that album itself. On a few of these songs, as well as on rarity “Instrumental #2,” there’s an unexpected focus on danceable beats. It’s indicative of Shields’ interest in that scene, but it’s only really reflected in “Soon” from Loveless. The rest of the various rarities here (including a full ten-minute version of “Glider,” perhaps the band’s most abstract and drone-focused track) are interesting for fans, but largely inessential. Shields said in an interview as part of this process that looking back at these unreleased tracks made him realise how much better the tracks for the follow-up to Loveless are: we can only hope he’s right (and, of course, that he ever actually finishes them).

Isn’t Anything is the real suprise of this set of reissues, and not just because it’s by far the most dramatically improved-sounding of the three. Rather, understanding it in the context of the EPs released before and after, what’s immediately striking is the restraint. Midway between the angle-grinding fuzz guitars of the early pop and the walls of guitar distortion that characterise Loveless, the songs here are sparser and less immediate, rewarding repeated listens. The snare drum hits opening “Soft as Snow (but Warm Inside)” sound a lot like those on “Only Shallow” three years later, but from that common starting point the albums go in drastically different directions.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago which I preferred, I’d have said Loveless, without a doubt; but while that album’s undoubtedly more groundbreaking and just sonically stunning, Isn’t Anything hangs together just as well. The songs are better than those on the more celebrated Loveless: the yearning vocal on “Cupid Come” is one of Shields’ best vocal performances, more affecting for its clarity against sparse and angular rhythm guitar and some trademark Shields glide lines. That’s not to say that this album isn’t heavy; in keeping with the direction they were developing in live performances of the period (culminating in the infamous “holocaust” section of “You Made Me Realise”), songs like “You Never Should” have the same kind of distorted guitar textures as contemporaries Dinosaur Jr. were popularising across the Atlantic. The reissue of Isn’t Anything brings out the clarity of the recording nicely, without losing too much of the claustrophobic intesity which is so important to the album’s atmosphere.

And so, Loveless. Aside from a couple of miscellaneous tracks the second album was the last thing they released, and it was so well-received then and in the last twenty years that it casts a shadow across their whole career. Even in trying to review their earlier material, it’s hard to look at it without seeing Loveless as an obvious culmination to their whole career; at the same time both logical and completely unique. It’s hard to write too much about Loveless without descending into the kind of music-critic self-parody referenced by UK shoegaze label Sonic Cathedral, so I won’t try. I’ll just say that while others have taken the sound palette created here further into the realms of abstraction (bands like lovesliescrushing), or worked within the same idiom to ever-decreasing effect (a legion of current shoegazers), no-one’s ever really captured the blend of dream-pop atmospherics and crushing harmonic distortion to quite such perfect effect. Although it’s a myth that there are thousands of guitar tracks on Loveless (just a few in each song, processed and reprocessed to achieve the desired effects), the sheer density of sound on the record means that the remastering job is not as apparent here as on the earlier material. And one of the selling-points of the reissue – the previously unheard master of the album based on the analogue tapes – is, to be honest, not massively different from the original. Both versions sound significantly louder than the old CD master, and generally more immediate. Of the two, the “new” version is perhaps a bit more restrained and subtle at times. But really, for an album like Loveless the difference is neither especially noticable nor especially important.

It seems unlikely that Loveless can have any more influence than it already has, but what all three of these reissues demonstrate is that these records are still incredibly vital, essential and contemporary. And if it takes four years to remind the world of that (which, to judge by MBV’s unaccustomed appearances in various newspapers, it has), then it’s probably still worth it.

Isn’t Anything: 95%

Loveless: 100%

EPs 1988-1991: 85%

Album Review: Liam the Younger – After The Graveyard / Clear Skies Over Black River (Reissues)

By Colin Joyce; March 16, 2012 at 12:01 AM 

As an on again off again collaborator/member of New Jersey punks Titus Andronicus, you might expect that Liam Betson (recording here as Liam the Younger), would release music featuring the same sort of Replacements indebted indie rock, but this really couldn’t be further from the truth. Other than bearing a similarity in fidelity to the first Titus Andronicus record, which Betson contributed to, these two re-releases on the venerable New Jersey based indie label Underwater Peoples dash any anticipation that he might bear any resemblance to his day act.

On these two early releases, instead of driving guitars and shouted literary vocalizations, we are treated to plaintive strums and mumbled turns of phrase, and it’s to great effect that Betson steers clear of the tropes of Titus. Perhaps comparisons to the band are unfair, information regarding Betson’s participation in the band at the time when he recorded these efforts are nebulous at best, so it’s better to look at these then as free of the fingerprints of the act that he is now back with.

Even from the beginning of After The Graveyard, the earlier of the two releases, its apparent that Betson’s songwriting chops are fully formed. It’s been noted that Patrick Stickles, frontman of Titus Andronicus, dislikes vocal comparisons to Conor Oberst, but such a comparison could certainly be applied to Betson. Especially in the banjo-strumming “This Land, Part 2,” both melodically and sonically Betson sounds like a Bright Eyes song filtered through a bit of tape his and stripped of the more cheesy sentiments that Oberst often offers up.

It’s the little things that After The Graveyard truly succeeds in, and its ultimately these little details that separates it from millions of records that do the same thing, or even from Clear Skies Over Black River. It’s the acoustic slide guitar in the background on the title track, it’s the opening line on “Songs of Living,” it’s the “fuck yous” on “If I Ever Live Alone,” little details each one, but crucial in the construction their respective songs. If every acoustic guitar toting wannabe songwriter had the attention to detail that Betson has, a world filled with Guthrie clones wouldn’t seem like such a bad thing. These songs remain fresh in a genre that’s been overpopulated long before Betson was around and will remain to be long after.

Clear Skies Over Black River, then, represents the other side of this coin. Though there’s nothing really to say that it’s worse on a global level, it’s missing those little moments that made After The Graveyard so distinct. The songs are still there, and Betson’s lyrics are up to the standard that the earlier release established, but it seems to focus less on the little ramshackle elements and more on the creative whole, which causes the record a bit more of homogeneity in a genre marked by it.

I’m not one to generally put forth one song as the crux of a collection of many, but the rambling changes of “Ode to Then” really represent the best of what Betson does on the whole. It’s hissy guitar strums and explorations of the internet as “our version of the wild west” seem representative of Betson’s whole M.O. There’s nothing here that’s groundbreaking, simple folk music has been around for many times the length of Betson’s life, but in its tape-hiss aesthetic and in Betson’s singular lyrical voice.

It’s a shame that Betson’s 2010 release Revel Hidden Worlds shucked a large amount of what made these albums special. While still interesting in it’s own way, the intimacy of these records is gone. Instead of the whispers of a guy in his bedroom, we’re treated to the wails of a garage band. No matter what the path Betson takes on further releases, whether in the vein of these Guthrie indebted collections, or further down the path of blown out country rock, these two albums here will provide a sufficient and interesting introduction to a songwriter whose work could, and has to this point, easily be ignored due to the shadow of his day band’s work.

After The Graveyard: 79%

Clear Skies Over Black River: 66%

Album Review: U2 – Achtung Baby [Super Deluxe Reissue]

By Sean Highkin; November 16, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

In the new documentary From the Sky Down, Bono and The Edge point to one moment during the writing of the song “One” that served as a breakthrough during the previously fruitless sessions that spawned Achtung Baby. Edge couldn’t decide between two versions of a chord progression he had written, so Bono and Brian Eno suggested he overlay them. “It felt like something powerful entered the room,” Edge said. “One” is the quintessential U2 song, and it almost never happened. One of the six CDs included in Achtung Baby‘s super-deluxe twentieth anniversary box set is a disc called Kindergarten, which constructs an alternate-universe version of the album out of demos and early takes. The version of “One” on that disc is lyrically and melodically basically a finished product, except it features only one of Edge’s two guitar tracks. The difference is monumental. There’s a good chance “One” wouldn’t have become iconic enough to serve as a namesake for Bono’s charity if they hadn’t tried out those two guitar patterns on top of each other.

Achtung Baby is the rarest kind of classic, a daring reinvention in sound and style by a band about as famous as any band could be, an album whose aims are topped only by the degree to which it succeeds at meeting all of them. U2 became one of the biggest musical acts on the planet with the release of their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, in 1987. But the subsequent world tour chronicled by the film Rattle and Hum saw a band on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own expectations every night, playing stadiums and appearing on the cover of TIME but becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what they were coming to represent. They had backed themselves into a tight corner, with no choice other than hitting the reset button.

In From the Sky Down, Edge describes the band’s new approach as “taking the humanity out so that the humanity we leave in means more.” If anything, however, the introduction of electronics into the U2 aesthetic served to make them more human than they were during the Joshua Tree period. On Achtung Baby, U2 balance their personal expectations with their ear for the shifting musical landscape as well as any band ever has. “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” seamlessly marry grunge to the industrial music Edge had taken to in the late ‘80s. “Mysterious Ways” is credible as white funk and devastating as a rock song. “One” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” prove that abandoning the stadium-rock mentality doesn’t mean they can’t still write choruses big enough to fill them, and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” and “Love is Blindness” prove that they’re just as capable of aiming smaller.

The bonus material on discs five and six of the box set (which also includes Achtung Baby’s severely underrated 1993 follow-up Zooropa and two pointless discs of remixes that likely won’t be of much use even to die-hards) only serve to illuminate how much had to go right for the album to be as good as it was. The B-sides disc features “Lady With the Spinning Head” and “Salome,” both of which were stripped for parts for the songs that ended up on the album. These are fine songs in and of themselves, but hearing riffs and melodies from “Ultraviolet” and “The Fly” in the context of “Spinning Head” only make you appreciate more how much they were made for the songs they ended up as. The Kindergarten disc of demos turn Achtung’s best songs into a game of “spot the influence.” Hearing “Even Better Than the Real Thing” as a Rolling Stones homage and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” as a Springsteen rip again reiterate how impressive the finished products are. The original, seven-minute version of the album’s gorgeous closing track, “Love is Blindness,” is worth the price of admission here.

The reason Achtung Baby is the most enduring work of U2’s career and one of the defining rock albums of the last quarter-century is how natural the band made this radical transformation sound. The change in sound was labored over and almost broke down several times, but the end result was something both utterly unlike anything the band had recorded to that point and completely of a piece with the rest of their output.

Album Review: The Beach Boys – The SMiLE Sessions

By Chase McMullen; November 9, 2011 at 12:01 AM 

How does one “review” a product forty-five years past its prime? Even in this thought, you’ve already lost: to suggest a set of recordings such as The SMiLE Sessions hinge on the trappings of a time period is to take away from their endurance. Again, you’re trapped. How can you illustrate the endurance of a recording never technically released? Easily. Most albums that stock your local Best Buy will spend years on those shelves, before moving to the bargain bin, if they’re lucky. The music industry is fickle, and consumers, fickler still. You can’t inspire people to remember records that once ruled the market, they fade from the industry’s collective memory completely, just ask Roy Orbinson. SMiLE was recorded from May to May, 1966 to 67. It was never released, not a copy sold. By all rights, that’s as dead in the water as a dropped rapper’s album: it’s nothing, no one is going to ever hear it, and no one is ever going to ask about it. SMiLE has been bootlegged song by measly song, re-recorded by its original visionary in an entire expansive re-imagining not ten years ago, and still, the ultimate release of these original recordings is an event to end events.

All this is obvious to a longtime lover of music, but some younger fans are sure to question: just what’s the big deal, in 2011? It’s 1966, The Beach Boys are high on the release of the greatest artistic accomplishment of their career, the differences that would drive them apart were already festering, and above all, now they had to do it. They had to top Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson wanted to record the perfect “teenage symphony,” and had started off without fail with “Good Vibrations.” Wilson had never been one to go about creation with ease, and with The Beach Boys’ first million-seller, he created a brilliant obsession that would grow into the monster that strangled his ‘perfect symphony.’ He had begun doing something then entirely unorthodox: recording each section of music – essentially, each sound – with an independent, long running session, all later pieced together, to create the nebulous concept of a flawless single that surely only existed in Wilson’s head. It all sounded crazy (and expensive), but it worked. The powers-that-be surely raised eyebrows at the price tag, but would endure anything for an entire album’s worth of “Good Vibrations.” Wilson even found the ideal writing partner in Van Dyke Parks. So, where did it all go wrong?

The popular, cool answer is Mike Love. He had been a voice of uncertainty during the increasing artistry of the Pet Sounds sessions, and had only grown more agitated at blowing budgets on Tannerins and the like, when those involved in the sessions recall them, they’re quick to point blame: Mike hated the album. He’s an easy target, and not at all an unfair one. However, considering The Beach Boys’ own prominence in the very culture that supports such a lifestyle, it’s important to note: Wilson had gone a tad off the deep end. Mary Jane had long been a friend, but Wilson had grown increasingly close with Lucy (we mean acid, folks). This both allowed for the extreme insights he had during recording and began to dissemble the already overworked and paranoid Wilson. He became convinced the “Fire” section of ‘Elements Suite’ was responsible for local fires, ceasing recording of the material, had his band dress in firemen hats, and so on. Parks avoided even entering the studio.

Yet, it reached beyond even this. Most musicians described Wilson as respectable during their sessions, saving his transgressions for outside the studio. It was resistance that broke Brian Wilson, the same resistance that turned what may have been his proudest moment, “Heroes and Villains,” into an afterthought. His own band member despised the album, but it was ultimately the music’s own brilliance that unraveled it. This is the strange tragedy of SMiLE, had it been released when it was intended, it may well have changed music forever. Yet, it just may as well have been overlooked, a recording destined for recognition long past its creation. So, perhaps, this painfully gradual release has only ensured its legacy, unleashing it on a generation of listeners trained to understand it. Despite all the bootlegs, the newer version, and all the material released on other albums across the years, the resurrected SMiLE still commands force. Somehow, allowing it its true moment on the shelves has solidified the record’s historical importance. In 1966, Brian Wilson and friends recorded an album that could have changed the world. The truth is, Wilson had thought the record would be a classic, every bit as worthy as many now consider it. Alas, the droves had wanted more surf music. While British musicians were warmly embraced for their new, burgeoning ideas, America suffocated one of its idols with their expectations, a complacent, dull desire for the one thing our country has never seemed to object to: more of the same. So, perhaps SMiLE did change the world, perhaps we can learn from it, and not make the next poor genius in line with an idea suffer for it.

Album Review: Nirvana – Nevermind [20th Anniversary Edition]

By John Ulmer; October 5, 2011 at 12:01 AM 

Looking back now, it’s hard to fully grasp the impact of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Big bands had come and gone over the years since the Beatles, but few had sparked such a cultural zeitgeist, nor connected as directly with the heart of their generation.

Of course, much has been written of Kurt Cobain over the years since his suicide, and an understandable emphasis has been placed on how disenfranchised he was by the band’s success – that he had always idolized underground punk bands and their commitment to anonymity – but this was hardly the first time an artist had disowned his largest success. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was surely tiresome to play time and again, but just imagine being the guys who wrote “Free Bird.”

Cobain’s inner turmoil is indeed a large part of what made the music connect with a generation born of cynicism. The ‘80s had provided a nonstop party and the music had been its soundtrack, but by the end of the decade it had all come crashing down; that’s why the grunge revolution hit as hard and as suddenly as it did. And though the music tended to express feelings of alienation and loneliness and suppressed rage, Cobain was the first of the grunge singers to marry that with innate pop sensibilities (whether he realized it or not). A song like “In Bloom,” in spite of its snarling riff and screaming chorus, is – suitably, given its lyrics – impossible not to sing along to, even if you don’t know what the hell he’s saying.

It’s difficult to write about an album this immense, this respected, this canonized by pop culture and even attempt to bring anything new to the table. What is there to say that hasn’t been said already, and by better writers? “It changed everything.” Well, no, not quite; but it certainly ushered in a whole new era of music, and with that came an influx of imitators, none of them able to come close to the cultural behemoth that the band had transformed into. And Cobain’s unfortunate passing in 1994 only helped solidify the group and this particular record as pop culture staples, images of both forever destined to adorn dorm rooms worldwide.

The new 20th anniversary reissue of the album comes in various forms. The standard two-disc set is the best bet for casual fans – the extra disc contains various demos and b-sides, as well as recordings from the band’s BBC sessions. It has been reported that the “Boombox Rehearsals” included here have been available in the past, released on the With the Lights Out box set. Indeed, much of this material might have been previously devoured by the band’s die-hard fans – and, unfortunately, a large portion of it is just that: material reserved for the obsessed. The most interesting bonus material may well be the Butch Vig recordings; lacking the “slick” aesthetic of Andy Wallace’s work that made its way to the final version of the album, Vig’s work is closer to the sound of the group’s first record: less polished and, as some might say, less mainstream. Nevertheless, it’s not drastically different from what you’re used to – unlike the remarkable changes between The Cult’s original Electric sessions and the final LP, Nirvana’s tracks never changed much from a songwriting standpoint; just the production values. Nothing here will blow you away, but it’s worth listening to as a curiosity if you are a fan.

What should be noted is the record’s remastering, which is both a blessing and a curse. Those listening through standard earbuds or speakers will probably enjoy the louder sound, and on that level the record definitely sounds more clean and polished than ever before and may hold some appeal; but for others, the quality is lacking: the songs have become a victim of the so-called “Loudness War,” which is ironic considering the remastering was engineered by Bob Ludwig, who, in 2009, publicly condemned the Loudness War as being one of the primary issues negatively affecting the music industry.

What happens by jacking up the volume on these songs is that you lose dynamics, which were particularly integral to Nirvana. Cobain was a fan of soft verses and loud choruses; it reflected the emotional rollercoaster of the lyrics, and you could feel the rage when Dave Grohl’s drums kicked in. The remastering on this album essentially removes those dynamics, so that the listener is left with a song of equal volume from beginning to end. When the album finishes, you feel battered and thrashed about, and not in the way the band intended. Of course, if you’re inclined to believe Lars Ulrich, most people “don’t give a shit” about this phenomenon, and if you’re one of those people, then you’re in luck. And if not, well… ready the Advil.

The ultimate consensus on the 20th anniversary re-release of Nevermind is that the album you know and love is still the album you know and love, and it goes without saying that the music contained here is both legendary and essential: one of those rare, near-flawless works of art that only grows finer with age. The bonus material is interesting, but not something a casual fan might be inclined to revisit; and while the poor job on the remastering will not perturb the average listener, die-hards and audiophiles should hold on to their original discs just in case.

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