I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Once again, I’ve got some full-length albums that I’ve already reviewed in a past life, so they’ll end up in this Quick Takes column. All the Quick Takes in today’s column have been previously published and are presented here with some revision, except for Actually, I Am Sasha Fierce. This time, most of you will probably be annoyed that Armed Forces isn’t getting the full review treatment. Too bad.
(Rack and Ruin, 2009)
I only downloaded this from Rack and Ruin because I liked the album title. I mean, c’mon – a play on Beyonce’s I Am … Sasha Fierce album? Yes please. Have you seen how many tracks are on the platinum edition of that? Twenty-nine. Does anyone need that much? Many people know how I feel about Beyonce – for those who don’t, I can’t stand her. She annoys the crap out of me. That “Single Ladies” song … shoot me. So I didn’t really care what this album sounded like, it already had me at its title. I had no idea what to expect. Andy and his Airport happen to traffic in ultra-lo-fi bedroom pop, perfectly fine. The recording is scratchy, but buried under the wash of reverb and delay are enjoyable pop nuggets. It makes sense that it was also released as a limited cassette with a run of 100. I think there are some still available for those into the tape-collecting game. Each side begins with an intro of Andy quietly strumming his guitar in a sea of recording grime, and talking about the songs that will appear on the side. It’s a weird little trick, not unpleasant. The release itself is super short, shy of twenty minutes. (Take that, Beyonce! Twenty-nine tracks. Sheesh.) Check out highlight “Duquesne Incline.”
My friend Mike hooked me up with a bunch of Autechre while I was living in London, and it was the first time I ever really immersed myself in their catalog. I’ve always been a fan of Aphex Twin, so it should come as no surprise that the electronic duo’s Anvil Vapre EP (the second of three by that name) hit the same sweet spots as Richard D. James’s most famous guise. Electronic playfulness is the M.O. here, with beats, synthesizers, and samples clanging off each other and intermingling to form a sprawling thirty-three-minute soundscape in just four tracks. It’s probably my favorite Autechre release I’ve listened to so far. There’s something about how track 1, “Second Bad Vilbel” plays out: The intriguing IDM beat, a pitch-processed staple throughout the Autechre catalog, focuses your attention, but there’s a deeply processed guitar sample (or is it some sort of electronic construction? An electruction? Hee hee, I make words) that adds a more distinct sonic flavor and makes the track stand out a little bit more. It repeats itself every few measures, and the entire composition is washed out by heavy static periodically as well. It drops off into a quiet midsection, the static wash replacing the beat. When it kicks back in, the beat is more fluid and slowed down (although the bpm isn’t), and the guitar/electruction and static wash remain. All of this happens over about nine minutes, and the piece really stands out. But the rest of the EP’s pretty good too.
(This Generation Tapes, 2008)
There’s something strikingly similar about this – I know I listened to this record during the winter of my London year, which was the first time I’d ever listened to it. Those were post rock days – walking the cold streets under gray skies practically begged for gloomy headphone accompaniment. Strangers Die Every Day fit the bill, and they were a welcome change from the minimal ambient and pummeling catharsis that coursed through my earbuds. The four-piece isn’t your typical Explosions/Godspeed apers – Strangers traffic in chamber sounds, lush strings for winter evenings. The song lengths are about a third as long as well. Violin, cello, bass, and drums make you forget all about the chiming-beauty-turned-distortion-avalanche M.O. of their peers, the meditations whisking you far from those angsty places. But I can’t help but damn it with faint praise – it’s a pleasant listen, good for background music, but its modern classicism gets lost in the busy day-to-day pace unless you’re focused on it like a laser sight. Perhaps that’s more a lifestyle criticism (or critique) rather than a knock against Aperture for Departure, and it doesn’t hurt that the band’s trying to pierce the modern consciousness with a unique approach, but with so many options out there to choose from, it’s going to be hard for me to come back to this record. And that’s really a shame, because Strangers Die Every Day occupies a niche that too few attempt to settle into. And they’re very good at what they do.
It’s timely to revisit an Arcade Fire release in the immediate aftermath of their most recent album The Suburbs, an album with which I’ve spent a little time, but put it quickly aside due to its underwhelming nature. But that’s a review for another post. The Arcade Fire whetted appetites in 2003 with this self-titled EP, predating by a year the band’s breakthrough album Funeral, an album I love dearly. This meaty little release – seven-song EPs are to die for – highlights the growing pains of a band just finding itself as the powerful outlet it would shortly become. By the time of Funeral’s recording, Regine Chassagne’s vocal contributions would be minimized to appearances on “Haiti” and “In the Backseat,” late-album inclusions which find her voice reigned further in than on her Arcade Fire tracks. Unfortunately, here she sounds like an unrestrained Bjork, and while that may sound like a compliment to some, Chassagne reaches beyond the boundaries of the key too often and overpowers any pleasantness in “I’m Sleeping in a Submarine” and “My Heart Is an Apple.” Her husband and bandleader Win Butler fares much better, and he’s wisely cast as frontman for the majority of the songs. Even when he veers into registers best left alone, his songs find easier purchase, such as EP-opener “Old Flame.” And believe it or not, there are a few songs here that I can actually enjoy without the addition of a qualification: The band revisited and re-recorded the brilliant, soaring “No Cars Go” for second album Neon Bible, stripping the spoken-through-a-megaphone middle part for the new version, but it still works well in its longer form here. I actually thought “Headlights Look Like Diamonds,” a straight-up rocker and all-around great track, might make Neon Bible, but it’s content to dwell happily on this EP. And “Vampire/Forest Fire,” a song I originally heard on a CBC Session performance, moodily closes the EP. Ultimately, it’s worth hearing The Arcade Fire’s baby steps in hindsight as we know how visible the band is today. And despite a few missteps, there’s a lot to like here.
(The Militia Group, 2005)
I could probably care less in the end about Denison Witmer. He’s a sad-sack singer-songwriter, not something I gravitate to terribly often. He’s a friend of friends, so it’s hard to completely dismiss him. In college, he opened a show at which my friends’ band, The Flying Karpophalous Family Trio, were playing, and he did OK. (This other band Scientific was the headliner. Their singer/guitarist Christian Wargo went on to form Crystal Skulls and now plays in Fleet Foxes.) Witmer also finds himself part of the Sufjan Stevens extended musical family, having toured with him in the live incarnation of Stevens’s Illinois band. (I wonder if Denison had to wear the male cheerleader outfit…) But in the end, Dreamer and its live-record counterpart Sleeper are simply gentle and blandly pretty folk meditations on life, love, and place, and not terribly compelling, kind of in a less-rangy Sufjan kind of way. Certainly it’s good rainy-day material, easily, but there’s just too much music and too little time to listen to it all than to give this more than a cursory listen. I’ll leave these records to others. Hey, you may like them. Why don’t you give them a try?
How have you come to this point in your life, no matter who or how old you are, and not gotten into Elvis Costello? Honestly? It’s a travesty, and it should be amended, potentially by sensory overload. I think you should be strapped to a chair, a lá Room 23 on Lost’s Hydra Island, and forced to listen to Costello’s discography, and view Costello-specific images and films. It just needs to happen. Me? My immersion came in college, even though I’d seen videos and heard songs of his on the radio growing up in suburbia. I had a girlfriend who highly recommended I turn my full attention to his music, and so I did – no regrets there. (Could it have been my morbid fascination with the relational and emotional damage/carnage that was so prominently on display? My weird striving for self-sabotage?) I particularly liked the first two records (I have My Aim Is True on vinyl), my favorite being This Year’s Model. This one’s Elvis’s third album, and it’s still pretty good, but doesn’t hold a candle to the first two. Some great songs though: “Accidents Will Happen,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Green Shirt,” “Moods for Moderns,” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding” all hold up next to the best Elvis has written. Now, off with you – you’ve got some listening to do, or you’re gonna get it.