Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Two And A Half

Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank--the band's last two albums are among my favorites of the last 10 years so this one's a medium-sized disappointment. I didn't take to it at all at first, but it pays back repeated listening if you let the groove go to work on you.

This is probably the nearest thing to a pop album that Modest Mouse are going to make, and about as far away from the intimacy of The Moon And Antarctica as you can get. The songs are surprisingly direct and accessible (if weird as usual), whether it's the single "Dashboard" or the slow and slightly bombastic "Little Motel" (the first MoMo song suitable for the accompaniment of swaying lighters). In terms of sound it's much more of a "band" record than the orchestrated, all-over-the-place Good News For People Who Love Bad News, and the current lineup features, surprisingly, journeyman ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as well as original drummer Jeremiah Green--not that I would really have noticed. The guitars sound great and drive most of the songs, usually in combination with a stomping groove a la some variation of "Float On." It's a very groove heavy album in fact. Mainman Isaac Brock's cracker vocal delivery is familiar, as are his long lyric sheets and tendency to write in a wry and generalised way about our hapless state, using specifics to paint big pictures.

Ship has a lot of guts and features a number of really good and addictive tracks, but it's too comfortable with itself. It's very self-referential music and doesn't play around with influences as much as previous albums. A number of tracks, like the opener "March Into The Sea," "Parting Of The Sensory," and "Invisible" tread decidedly old ground. The best stuff, like "Florida," "We've Got Everything" and "Fire It Up" bore into your brain like a brain-eating vole on amphetamines. Like their '90s albums, it's an endurance contest getting through the whole thing in one listen and some of the stuff at the back end like "Spitting Venom" I could have done without.

I give huge props to MM for being able to make chart-topping albums when they're such a weirdo band at heart. I just wished this one showed a little more development and a little more intimacy.

Modest Mouse--"Florida" (from We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank)
Modest Mouse--"Missed The Boat" (from We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank)

Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity--this is the first album I've ever heard by the weirdie Frisco three-piece (the drummer plays keyboards), so thank you very much Pitchfork--you make me feel so young (mid-30s). This is one of the most enjoyable discs I've heard in a good while. My three-year-old daughter likes it as well, and even makes up her own nonsense lyrics instead of accurately singing the, er, nonsense lyrics.

The first couple of tracks on Friend Opportunity might make you think that Deerhoof's sound could be summed up, in one sentence, as Stereolab crossed with an art-punk-garage band. But there's more to them than that. I can hear indications that they've listened to Larks' Tongues In Aspic as well as any number of jazz-rock-prog outfits. And I think it's fair to say that there are very few bands out there who can fit as much into a three-minute song as these guys; I mean, who writes idiotically catchy melodic pop tunes ("Matchbook Seeks Maniac") with a song structure of Ai-Aii-Aiii-chorus-B-C-chorus?

Stylistically, it's all over the place but held together by an incredible vibrancy and fun. It's arty music, but with very little pretense (quasi-naive ESL lyrics and squeaky-voiced Japanese singer Satomi Matzusaki add to the bounce and approachability). Apart from the Stereolab/post-punk inflected pop of "The Perfect Me" and "Believe E.S.P.", there's one track based around close-mic'ed piano that sounds like the gentler side of Peter Hammill ("Whither The Invisible Birds"), another one that leads off with a folky-prog acoustic guitar ("The Galaxist") and yet another that's mostly chopped-up samples over a drumline rhythm ("Kidz Are So Small"). The playing is great, and just loose enough to kick some major backside where necessary.

The one caveat with FO is that it's fairly brief and capped off with a 12-minute more abstract and drawn-out sectional piece (based around John Dieterich's clangy chromatic guitar work), which some people might find jarring after 9 tightly-packed short songs. Otherwise, the album is a highly-recommendable pile 0' fun.

Life is good. For 35 minutes anyway.

Deerhoof--"The Perfect Me" (from Friend Opportunity)
Deerhoof--"Whither The Invisible Birds?" (from Friend Opportunity)
Deerhoof--"Matchbook Seeks Maniac" (from Friend Opportunity)

Menomena: Friend And Foe--very impressive second cd from this Portland, Oregon multi-instrumental three-piece (with two singers). I meant to go see them last month but I don't have the stamina for midnight (scheduled) sets anymore. Damn you, 2am closing time!

Menomena's sound-world is rooted in Tortoise-like post-rock (foregrounded, crunchy cymbals and hi-hat, boomy bass), but they also very good at--heaven forfend--writing actual songs. You can hear a little bit of The Flaming Lips (without the requisite dumbness), too, in the general grandeur and in the singer with the nasal voice. Pacings are slow, rhythms dug-in, and orchestrations, which are very "orchestral," feature the three-piece with sax, piano, organ and synth excellent--a very appealing sounding record in fact. How they do most of this stuff live is beyond me (their first album was apparently written almost entirely on Mr. Computer). Some songs sound churchy, some chunky/funky, and some electronic. You'd think you'd that the deliberate pace of the album would wear after a while but there's so much wit, good songwriting and arrangement that you don't care. Menomena make every note and beat count.

There isn't a great deal of fat on the album--it's maybe one song longer than it needed to be--and even the less inventive tracks like "Evil Bee" veer off in interesting directions and/or have interesting things to listen to. It's hard to pick favorites as many of the songs are complementary and there's a lot of ebb and flow. "The Pelican," which sounds like raging stoners playing post-rock, is pretty cool, as are the bass grooves of "Muscle 'n' Flo" and "Air Aid." I hear the Flaming Lips influence most in songs like "Wet And Rusting" and one of my faves, the sombre organ-drone "My My."

Oh, just listen to the samples. Writing about music is like sculpting about ballet after all.

Menomena--"Muscle 'n' Flo" (from Friend And Foe)
Menomena--"My My" (from Friend And Foe)

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