Thursday, September 1, 2005

Records In Review: New Musik--Warp

I thought I'd better finish off this particular express train of thought, since I've got little else to talk about at the moment. For impressions of the first two New Musik albums, click here and here.

The band's third and final album Warp sees them stripped down to a three-piece, with Mr. Mansfield joined by Clive Gates on keys and Cliff Venner on percussion, but, as with Anywhere, Tony M. is the alpha and omega (he produces and designs the sleeves, yet again). The sound is much sparer than on the previous two records. The atmospheric, multi-layered wall of keyboard sound of Anywhere is here replaced by arrangements that feature protuberant beatboxes, (I'm assuming) first generation Simmons electronic drums, chilly synths and "that" piano sound which would turn up again in places like this (actual paying gigs for Mansfield, which soon became his bread-and-butter). The songs are generally more upfront in both their musical and lyrical sentiments, and there's some rather obvious "message" here and there.

If From A To B and (particularly) Anywhere exist in NM's own little enclosed universe, then Warp's sonic world and choice of material sees the group breaking out of it somewhat, and with only mixed success. There are very good moments and some undoubtedly interesting bits of sonic experimentation, but there is also the feeling that the album is sabotaging its own momentum on more than one occasion and that the various songwriting, motivic and sound elements never quite come together. And it doesn't help that the material is by far the weakest of the three studio albums.

Side A, like side B, is a continuous run, with abrupt joins between songs. I remember CFNY here in Toronto having a hell of a time playing tracks from the record without getting a bit of the following track on air as well! Perhaps this was an evil scheme to get more airplay..? Anyway, the first side is pretty good. Some listeners reacted negatively to the slightly funky, "positivity"-sounding opener "Here Come The People," but I've always liked it; in fact, it's one of the few places where the hippy-dippy approach works. It's simple, but it sounds great, with it's surging synth bass line, electronic drum fills and charming octaved piano melody. The sing-along "A Train On Twisted Tracks" is probably my favourite album track: very touching, without being maudlin--well, maybe just a little. "Going Round Again" is very spaced out, sonically speaking, and has some striking instrumental entrances (as well as the first--gasp!--sexualized lyric in the New Musik ouevre), but is let down by the chorus. "I Repeat" is true to its title: measured pace, repetitive vocal melody and chord sequence (with no chorus). The effect is kind of funny but mostly freaky with a weird tension to it...which is completely dissipated by the ensuing two "versions" of "All You Need Is Love." The first is an original, and can best be described as inoffensively naive. The second is a four-square cover of the old warhorse and a complete waste of time, replete with a less-than-inspired vocal performance and some cheesy electronics. Blech.

Side B is a real mixed bag. "Kingdoms For Horses" is a good application of the sparser sound and contains some effective shifts in musical perspective as the sounds gradually build up and move in and out. "The New Evolutionist" is an effective straight-four acoustic guitar-led number that reminds me of a more worldly version of "Living By Numbers" from From A To B. The concluding track "Warp" bears a resemblance to "I Repeat" in terms of the incessant chilliness of its electronic finale, but is more conventional in structure, which I think lessens the impact a little. Still a good one, though. The remainder of the material isn't exactly shit-hot. "Hunting" is ponderous and doesn't develop much. "Green and Red (Respectively)" waves the electronic flag but doesn't do much else. The biggest jeer, though, I reserve for "The Planet Doesn't Mind," which, as you might guess, is the most obvious of the "message" songs and is, well, pretty embarrassing and not particularly inspired.

Warp may be a failed experiment, but it's still interesting in places and best listened to in chunks when the mood takes you. It's a shame that this ended up being New Musik's swan-song. Ah, what might have been...

DVD Review: The Might Be Giants--Here Come The ABCs

Rock 'n' roll is ALL about the kids, dude.

It really is nice having something decent to watch and listen to along with your little 'un. This isn't the two Johns' first foray into children's music. Their 2002 album No! is a lot of fun and while this collection (available as both cd and dvd) isn't quite as good, it still contains a lot of classic TMBG moments. Cut the boys some slack--when you're doing alphabet songs, you've got to stick to the script!

The video is a combination of letter and general alphabet songs with a variety of different visuals: live action, live action/video effects, marionation, and various animation styles. Linnell and Flansburgh host the show as sock puppets...with very anatomically correct hair, to boot.

Most of the tunes are miniatures, with a few slightly longer tunes thrown in, which are, of course, more interesting from an, erm, adult point of view, although some of the quickies are really cool too. I usually like John L's stuff a little more, but this collection's pretty much a saw-off. Flansburgh's best numbers are: "C Is For Conifers," a country-themed song in TMBG's encyclopedic tradition (e.g., "Mammals" and "James K. Polk"--the stuff that usually earns them the moniker "nerd rockers" from bulletheaded music critics); the lightly-funky "E Eats Everything," in which the indiscriminately piggy little character gets his comeuppance by meeting Z, which eats only Es, pac-man style; and "Pictures of Pandas Painting," which is a minor rugrat freakout featuring some unsettling slow-mo filmic animation. I have a suspicion that this may actually be a piss-take on the Super Furry Animals, as the animation looks like something I remember seeing on their Rings Around The World dvd, although my memory might be cheating me. I haven't been able to find any additional info about the animator.

Of Linnell's stuff, I like "I C U," another country tune the lyrics of which are composed entirely of individual letters. A lonely X sits at home on a rainy night wistfully watching a weather-girl X on tv, in true hurtin' style. There's also a letter-search track called "Can You Find It?" which sounds so conventionally adult TMBG, in Linnell's trademark folky style, that you realize that it's a fine line between TMBG and a kids' band on most days. Maybe that avoidance of sub-genre and subculture is what makes them so appealing.

I've got to try this dvd out on some other kids. My daughter's too young for the more involved stuff, although she appears to like the music and busy visuals just fine and was shaking her little booty more than once. I'm not sure how some of this material works on the cd version, as the visuals are directly tied to the music in many places. Adults who watch on their own--you know who you are--can skip over the alphabet-recitation tracks and other filler.

N.B. Knowing my geography, I wondered how the first track "Alphabet of Nations" was going to cope with the letter X, which is the first letter of Nowhereland. That was before I knew that there was an African country called West Xylophone. Wukka wukka.

Records In Review: The Arcade Fire--The Arcade Fire

Once again, I'm indulging my suspicion of over-hyped bands. I have to admit that I haven't really taken to the singles I've heard off the Montreal band's big furry hit album Funeral, as their tightly-wound new wave revivalist sound makes me want to switch to decaf. This is their debut disc, which is referred to as an ep, despite being longer than your average Hives album. And it's actually quite good.

I've wondered a lot recently where this pairing of Brit '80s new wave and country came from. I guess it depends which way 'round you're looking: was it new wave revivalists gone c&w, or American jangle-pop bands discovering the '80s? In any event, I blame it all on New Order for doing "Love Vigilantes." That's my theory and I'm sticking to it...'til tomorrow morning, at least. Any music historians and scenesters out there are welcome to set me straight.

The Arcade Fire has a fair bit of twang to it, although it's most prominent on the two tracks that book-end this collection, which are my least favourite. There's some good material in between, though, when they're not sounding like a less arch version of The Flaming Lips. "No Cars Go" is a good straight-ahead number with more of that aforementioned new wave bent, but it's less in-your-face than their recent music. "I'm Sleeping In A Submarine," which revolves around a nice 12/8 swirling piano bit, is prettily whimsical and understated--or as understated as Regine Chassagne's Bjork sound-alike vocals allow. "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" is the real studio production piece of the record and there's a definite Flaming Lips correlation viz the slightly OTT orchestration and general sweep, but the development is more organic and less episodic than on The Lips' more recent stuff. A lot of nice textural contrasts, too.

This edition is supposedly remastered, although it's not credited in any way. The artsy packaging of the disc will no doubt appeal to youngsters with Romantic tendencies, a condition which is now apparently treatable.

Records In Review: New Musik--Anywhere

For a review of New Musik's first album and some background, click here. Self-referential already, for god's sake.

The prevailing view, among the 15 shut-ins like me who listened to the band, is that album number one is the bee's knees, while the other two continue to battle it out for distant second. Well, I say to you muthas: it's on, 'cos I actually prefer Anywhere to From A To B in some ways. It's just different, and in Toronto we're supposed to celebrate diversity, no?

The most obvious change from the first album is the instrumentation. Keyboards are front and centre; in fact, there's a number of all-keyboard songs, like the creepy and cool "Areas" and "Peace." No acoustic piano, though. The drums are mostly box, as far as I can tell, and even if they're not they're as austere as austere can be--no fills or four-/eight-bar cues. Tony Mansfield's acoustic guitar takes a back seat, other than on "This World of Walter," and while there may be bass guitar here and there, the only thing that I can definitively pick out is the slappy part in "Churches." Vocals are more in the middle of the mix and there's a lot of backwards effects.

The result of all of this is an other-worldly sounding record. The minimalism of the "rhythm section" and the subtler textural contrasts (compared to From A...) create an impression of drifting that is very appealing, at least to me. This is probably where a lot of the difference in opinion lies viz the first two albums. Song structure isn't for the most part radically different, but the use of breaks, middle-eights and the like is more experimental and less naive (compare "Living By Numbers" with "Churches") and there's less reliance on traditional pop hooks.

The first side is the better one, and has a really nice shape and lots of variety to it. Of particular note is the aforementioned "Areas," which uses keyboards and a Roland Compu-Rhythm beatbox on Bossa Nova setting to create Mansfield's unique version of lounge, and "While You Wait," which has some incredible keyboard arrangements and a degree of new-wave aggression to it previously unknown to the band. "Churches" and the opener "They All Run After The Carving Knife" are both flawed pieces that work: the former is an odd blend of charming pop melody and ascetic composition, and the latter is an incessant beatbox-driven scorcher that doesn't develop much but still packs a punch. I could do without the swingy cheeze of "Luxury," which is pretty gutless and the album's lowest moment.

Side two suffers from taking a while to get going. "Changing Minds" is more notable for its arrangement than anything else--not that I'm complaining too much, as the arrangement is great . "Peace" is pleasant but overlong, and, after "Luxury," I'm in less of a mood for that damn beatbox. The best stuff is, Oreo-like, in the middle. "Design" contains echoes of "Sanctuary" from the first album, but with more of a sense of repose. I know I keep going on about them, but if those bell sounds in the chorus lead-in don't make you weep with joy, then you're not anyone I care to know. "Traps" is one of my favourite NM songs. As in "Areas," the Roland-type beatbox is used really well and blends in nicely with the organ sounds and electronic bass (not to mention the late '70s Genesis keyboard sound used in the outtro). The lyrical conceit (of being, er, trapped) is illustrated musically with measured pacing and circular chord progressions. The concluding track "Back To Room One" would have been a hit single in an alternate universe where people listen to good, wistful music.

It turned out that, commercially speaking, Anywhere was an overly hopeful title for the record. And that's a damn shame. Pick up both From A To B and this one. Pay the exorbitant import prices, if necessary, 'cos they're both worth it.

Records In Review: The New Pornographers--Twin Cinema

All right, I admit it: I've been living under a rock for the past five years as far as The New Pornographers are concerned, and now I feel like a total schmuck. The reason? Twin Cinema is call-in-sick, hug-your-next-door-neighbour, bugger-me-with-a-barge-pole good. All right, I exaggerate: I wouldn't actually hug my neighbour, as he's 90 and reeks of the 2.5 packs of Rothmans that he runs through daily. Nevertheless, the world is a happy place and I am full of hope, goddammit!

I don't have much to reference this album to, as I'm not familiar with the previous work of mainmen Newman and Bejar--hey, cut grampa some slack--and have only heard a smidgen of Neko Case, whom I liked but who occupies an alt-countryish realm that isn't really my washboard of choice. I can pick out a general resemblance to The Shins in terms of melodic facility, but with less of the woooo! mop-top thing, and a little bit of Matthew Sweet, but that's probably just some of the guitar and vocal production and in any event, The Pornographers don't make a similar fetish of the low-brow.

Mostly, the music puts old-school psych and guitar-rock motifs at the service of highly-skilful and economical songcraft. [enough hyphenation--ed.] That's spelled E-C-O-N-O-M-I-C-A-L. I've listened to the album through several times now, and if anyone can find me a superfluous or missing eight bars on this record, then I'll buy them an inexpensive steak dinner. The arrangements, too, are lovely. It's mostly traditional guitar, bass, drums and piano, but the sound is very expansive, aided in no small part by some great vocal layering and performance. Production is crystal-clear and unobtrusive, giving the impression of a work that is both very substantial and eminently listenable. Jackpot!

Case's dead-on-the-beat, unaffected folksy style is an excellent fit with the material presented here, mostly written by Newman. Her first lead, "The Bones Of An Idol," is my favourite track, and it's a fascinating one, too. Less than three minutes long, and trundling along at a leisurely pace to boot, it combines a near-perfect yet simple song structure with a sonic environment that makes me think that someone in the band was listening to late-'80s Mike Oldfield (I've been mentally adding a tympani part in the finale). "These Are The Fables," also sung by Case, is a lovely plaintive number that employs a more overtly folky vocal cadence. Like several songs here, some version of a verse-chorus repetition is followed by a variation outtro, which very much adds to the sense of space on the record. The rest of Newman's output tends to be rockier, like the title-track opener (the aformentioned Shins resemblance is strongest here), or else spacier, as in the well-arranged and punchy "Falling Through Your Clothes."

Bejar's compositions are unabashedly '60s-retro in their inspiration, but they never descend to self-consciousness or kitsch. He comes awful close in "Broken Breads," with its hilarious happy-hippy la-la chorus, but it's such fun that you don't care. Play it loud on your car stereo and if anybody stares at you, just smile. "Jackie, Dressed In Cobras" is another favourite, and one which propels itself along with gusto while effectively playing off the contrasts between its verse/(presumed) chorus and break sections. Bejar's singing voice reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock, albeit less grainy.

Twin Cinema is, I think, going to end up costing me a lot more than $14.99. I've got some serious back catalogue to start exploring.

P.S. I should also say a word about drummer (and co-producer) Kurt Dahle, whose playing on the album is both sympathetic and technically impressive. My only familiarity with him is from the odd single by his previous bands Age Of Electric and Limblifter, both of whose target markets were me minus 10-15 years.

Records In Review: The Futureheads--The Futureheads

I knew that if I just waited around long enough, people would start making the kind of music that I like again. I'm sure it's the music that's changing, not me. No siree, Robert.

The Futureheads are a Sunderland foursome (which I think is actually the title of a porno that my wife and I rented a couple of months back) who, as cited by many others, wear their post-punky influences on their sleeves; most particularly, Gang of Four (Andy Gill produced a portion of the record) and early XTC. I see a lot more of the latter, especially in terms of songwriting approach, but the former's sonics and guitar sounds are certainly evident as well. I hear much more XTC here than here, all told--much more evident at the micro-level.

The Futureheads has been stuck in my car and home cd decks for a few weeks now, only recently being displaced by an even better album about which I'll write later, if you're all very, very good boys and girls. I hope I haven't killed this baby by overlistening, but it's really contagious stuff. The songs go along at breakneck pace with lots of stop-starts, sudden changes and striking vocal interjections. The songwriting's deceptively naive and moments of banality are few and far between.

The Gang Of Four influences are most prominent in songs like "The City Is Here For You To Use," which has that kind of pounding restraint in the rhythm section that was particular to Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen. In general, though, The Futureheads, although looser, are energetic, clever and jagged in the XTC style, with an additional dose of hell-for-leather that makes the sound their own. The interlaced staccato guitar on the excellent "Alms" is very Andy Partridge and co., but "Carnival Kids" is much punkier. Singer Barry Hyde's vocal approach is very figure-it-out-as-it-goes-along: sometimes, like in "Meantime," he's directly riffing on Mr. Partridge, sometimes even down to his predecessor's whole-tone attack point wobble (as on "He Knows"), but when he relaxes he can sound a bit Spiritualized ("Danger Of The Water"). The allmusic reviewer calls the vocal harmonies here British Invasion-sounding, but to my mind, that's like saying that most bread tastes like wheat. My favourite tracks are "Le Garage," "A To B," "Alms," "The City..." and "He Knows," but there's nothing here that calls for the fast-forward button. The interesting cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds Of Love" doesn't exactly blend in with the rest of the album--sounds rather like The Housemartins turned rabid.

The production on the album--I couldn't really tell between the Gill-produced tracks and the others--is decent, but a bit thunderous and undefined in places; e.g., the opener "Le Garage" would probably have benefitted from a more refined approach. Well, you have to have somewhere to go on your second album...which I enthusiastically look forward to hearing.