Monday, January 4, 2010

Let's try to keep in mind that the Smashing Pumpkins were not always like this. There was a time, over 10 years ago at this point, when Billy Corgan's grandiose ambitions were all within his reach, and his most overblown productions were often also his most tuneful and endearing. These days, though... ugh. "A Song for a Son", the first song to be released from Corgan's epic 44-track work-in-progress Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, is not awful so much as it is bloated and dreary. It has all the signifiers of a big, serious art-rock ballad, but there's nothing to it but empty gestures. The closest thing to a memorable melody in the piece sounds like Corgan attempting to re-write Jimmy Page's guitar part from "Stairway to Heaven" as the piano intro of Guns N' Roses' "November Rain", and the rest of the song plods along like a dull ritual. Somehow every element of the arrangement sounds strained and half-hearted, as if each instrument was forced to show up in the song as the result of some bitter legal obligation. (This is a particularly weird vibe given that Corgan is the only member of the original band still in the group.)

Yes, the song is a mournful dirge, and taken strictly on those terms, it's a huge success-- good luck finding a song that feels more like a miserable burden! Nevertheless, the greatest Pumpkins songs of the past worked because they either reveled in the perverse pleasures of depression, or found cathartic release in joyful rocking. Corgan once sang "I'm in love with my sadness!" and it rang true. Now he just sounds defeated and deflated, like a man who ought to seriously consider ending his long-term relationship with his melancholy muse.

MP3:> The Smashing Pumpkins: "A Song for a Son"

[from Teargarden by Kaleidyscopeself-released]

— Matthew Perpetua, January 4, 2010
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Sade enters their fourth decade of existence with a sixth studio album. And what an entrance! The group's distinct sound, precisely constructed to perforate the artifice of performance and directly convey the wages of the heart, seems to have an unusual resistance to mortality, existing beyond popular music trends; it is as if Sade have stepped outside of the aging process. Their sound is singular, their familiar style so strong that any one track feels as if it could have been recorded during any period of the group's history, a meaningful timelessness that allows minor renovations to feel like revelations.

"Soldier of Love" is based entirely around a single staggering groove, a wounded stride anchored simply by a regular kick drum and delayed snare. Around this motif, and its unrelenting-yet-damaged steps, a song is gradually carved: a sensuous sculpture that refuses to congeal, an effect not unlike making out an uncertain shape by touch in total darkness. The crackling moments of sudden intensity that beset our travelers-- snapping martial snares, handclaps, guitars grinding in dirt one moment, quivering synthesizers the next, hints of flamenco guitar, sudden guitar distortion, a trumpet's clarion cutting above it all-- tease risk, sexuality, and relief from the groove's uncompromising continuity. Each sound disappears a moment later, a sensation or mirage, an elusive hint at the visage of an uncertain future. Of course, at its center is Sade Adu's incomparable voice, which sounds as passionately poised as it did on 1984's Diamond Life. And it is through her vocals that "Soldier of Love" becomes a long, treacherous caravan journey struck by sudden flashes of purpose-- skirmishes with the enemy, waiting "for love to come, turn it all around."

[from Soldier of Love; out 02/08/10 on Sony]

— David Drake, January 4, 2010
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Part of a three-song EP sold on Nudge's recent European tour, "Everywhere at Once" might be the band's most psychedelic tune yet, a lush cloud of reflecting guitars and mirrored vocals. But it's not all puffy and soft. The track's core is a dubby, bass-driven throb-- actually more insistent than anything on their excellent 2009 album, As Good as Gone-- but it's less a dance beat than a subtle pulse, like a heart buried inside a pile of pillows. The lyrics also bend toward the surreal-- "Safe to say/ There's a better way/ Of being everywhere at once," Brian Foote hums through a haze of reverb, his voice spreading like fog to every corner of the track. Yet whenever the song threatens to float away like an unmanned helium balloon, the subterranean bass loops tether it back down to earth. That combo of light and weight is another step forward for Nudge, a band whose reach and grasp seem to be expanding at exactly the same pace.

[from the Nudge Tour CD-R; self-released]

— Marc Masters, January 4, 2010
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Friday, December 11, 2009

You know exactly where this song should go in the Disney cartoon of your dreams. It's a montage scene. Teacups or toucans or maybe sea urchins spontaneously line up to sing and dance as if their entire little lives were building up to this exact moment. Meanwhile, a high cheek-boned human can't help but get caught up in the revelry as so many gyrating inanimate objects and/or animals boost their confidence by way of mellifluous song. The first track to be heard from Sigur Rós leader Jónsi Birgisson's debut solo LP is the soundtrack to animated glory; its overflowing strings, flutes, guitars, background vocals, drums, and more provide the perfect puffy clouds, Jónsi's voice colors the scene. Here, cynicism does not exist. "Boy Lilikoi" is not dippy childhood nostalgia, though-- it takes all those Little Mermaid and Lion King songs hibernating in the back of your brain and one-ups them. There's a substantial uplifting effect.

Though Sigur Rós often defy literal meaning with their music via a made-up language called Hopelandic, "Boy Lilikoi" is sung in English. And while Jónsi's pre-pubescent wail is usually filled with enough verve to create resonance without intelligibility, the new element adds a direct dimension. Unsurprisingly, the singer's lyrics are as simple and naive as the song is ornate and complex, i.e., very. "We all grow old/ Use your eyes/ The world goes aflutter by," he goes, warning against complacency as modern classical composer Nico Muhly's arrangements recreate the flutter in real time. There's a tinge of finality, too, but it only strengthens the constant rising action. To escape into reflections of one's youth can be toxic, but denying the artful innocence of this song is akin to telling a six-year-old that Santa does not exist. Don't be that guy.

MP3:> Jónsi: "Boy Lilikoi"

[from Go; out 03/23/10 on XL]

— Ryan Dombal, December 11, 2009
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As a child of the 1980s, I have a pretty strong sentimental attachment to the original "Do They Know It's Christmas?" A distinct memory, vivid and happy as any I have, lingers in my mind of listening to it while wrapping presents with my older sisters in the house I grew up in. Nowadays when I hear the song in pharmacies or supermarkets, I'm reminded of that time-- before my parents would divorce, when family was still an absolute, invincible concept-- and either I get a little choked up or have a genuine twinge of excitement for the holidays. But that's the power of nostalgia and frankly it doesn't change what an incredibly patronizing song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is. From the title on down, the song is laughably out of touch. Do they know it's Christmas? Well, considering less than half the people on the continent are Christian, I doubt they much care.

And now we have a 2009 version of the song, courtesy of the lovably aggro Fucked Up and a host of indie heavyweights, including Andrew W.K., Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koening, and comedian David Cross, who recorded the winking cover to raise money for three very deserving Canadian charities. Replacing the original's chime with sort of a power-rock growl, Fucked Up and co. otherwise play things straight, going round robin to swap Bob Mould for Boy George, Tegan and Sara for George Michael, and hilariously, David Cross for Bono. It's Cross who gives probably the best performance here, pushing his meager voice to its natural limit and making sure we know the track is, at least in part, a piss-take by substituting one its more famous lines with, "Well tonight, thank god it's them instead of Jews!" Outside of a few giggles, though, the 2009 version doesn't stray much from 1984's, and somehow manages to tap into that same wistful feeling I get from the original. Call it cheesy, call it nostalgia, but to me, there's just something undeniable and triumphant about this song. Throw your arms around the world, people. It's fucking Christmastime.

[from the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single; out digitally on iTunes on Matador]

— Joe Colly, December 11, 2009
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Sometimes you hear an early mp3 and wonder if it might work better in the context of the album than it does as a standalone track. "Scissor", our first dose of Liars' fifth proper LP, Sisterworld, seems like it might lean that way, but it's not quite as cut-and-dry (it never is with these guys). On one hand, we have a seriously conflicted murder ballad that finds frontman Angus Andrew in formidably spooky form, waxing American Gothic over a wash of bleary, gospel choral harmonies, and a lone cello. This is interrupted by a second part, a primal blast of battering-ram-strength punk-noise that jolts, confuses, and in some cases completely repels. While this abrasion might seem like a odd jumping-off point, "Scissor" is Sisterworld's opening track, and this is Liars we're talking about here-- if they cared about comfortably easing you into a project, we wouldn't still be looking to them when we needed our brains beaten in. "I dragged her body to the parking lot... Just then I began to quiver/ When I saw her blinking eye, she was ALIVVVEEE," Andrew confesses, cuing the twisted coalescence of Nick Cave, voodoo séance hymns, and grinding thrash. We'll see what happens with the context of Sisterworld, but for now, it's just good to have them back.

MP3:> Liars: "Scissor"

[from Sisterworld; out 03/09/10 on Mute]

— Zach Kelly, December 11, 2009
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sublime Frequencies' ever-growing catalog of sonic obscurities covers many regions (Iraq, Nepal, Palestine, Myanmar, just to name a few) and a wealth of formats-- radio collage, field recordings, vérité video. But my favorite SF releases are the ones label founder Alan Bishop (of Sun City Girls) and his cohorts compile from old records they find gathering dust in flea markets and junk shops around the globe. These collections show how small the world is and how often styles cross-pollinate in times and places you might not expect.

Their latest archival gem, Singapore-A-Go-Go, uncovers the "off-beat cha cha" that sprouted up in Singapore during the 1960s, a time when this city-state at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula was exposed to Chinese pop, Latin rhythms, Western rock and country, and much more. "Tough Time Missing You", one of four instrumentals by the mysteriously-named Charlie Electric Guitar Band's Sound of Japan, is a super-catchy hybrid of those bubbling influences. It's at heart a swinging surf-guitar tune, but crucial touches of non-Western sound-- spritely xylophone, fuzzy raga-ish chords, hypnotic string trills-- mix with the bouncy beat, making "Tough Time Missing You" like sweet candy infused with alluring, hard-to-place spices. It's easy to imagine this song, and all of Singapore A-Go-Go, finding its way into some future Quentin Tarantino genre homage. But "Tough Time Missing You" conjures images of a specific time and place all by itself.

[from Singapore A-Go-Go; out now on Sublime Frequencies]

— Marc Masters, December 10, 2009
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In the (great) new documentary Lil Wayne: The Carter, we see our subject involved in any number of stoned, wriggly, divergent, obstinate, and willfully frustrating interviews with uncomprehending foreign journalists, and his total refusal to be pinned down in any remotely coherent way recalls nothing so much as Bob Dylan circa: Don't Look Back. Around the same time Dylan wore an equally wild and singular head of hair, and he too carried inflated voice-of-a-generation expectations. And lest we forget, Dylan also caused a furor within his genre when he first picked up an electric guitar. The main substantive difference: When Dylan plugged in, he gave us "Like a Rolling Stone". Wayne gave us "Prom Queen".

There's something fascinating about Wayne's recent ill-fated forays into what we're supposed to be calling rock. The songs are so crassly designed for commercial dominance and yet so clueless about what dominance might mean in rock music that the resulting music is just a squirming mess of warring impulses. On "On Fire", Wayne's idea of rock seems to be an ancient half-melted Red Hot Chili Peppers disc he found in an attic, except with cut-rate Flashdance synths everywhere. "On Fire" prominently samples a lesser Moroder-produced track from the Scarface soundtrack, then molests that sample with storm-clouds of drum machines and Wayne's own squiddly guitar noodles.

Wayne croaks away in a rasp so utterly smothered with Auto-Tune that you can barely make out what he says. And just when you're wishing he would ditch those attempts at singing and get back to rapping, he does, and the results aren't pretty. Actual lyric: "She hot as hell; let's call her Helen/ Fireman to her rescue like 9-11." An interesting failure, to be sure, but an absolute one.

[from Rebirth; out 12/21/09 on Cash Money/Young Money/Universal]

— Tom Breihan, December 10, 2009
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"Castaways" brings bucketloads of the grandeur and scope that folks have come to expect from Shearwater-- the rolling drums, the crashing piano, Jonathan Meiburg's indomitable bellow. However, those elements are put to use in a tune that's a little more hopeful and triumphant than what the group's known for. At least, it seems that way-- Meiburg's last words in the song are, "You are running from a rising tide/ You are castaways," which sounds like an odd ending sentiment when backed by the music's uplifting, anthemic swell. What's most odd about "Castaways", however, is its economy: despite its larger-than-life sweep, the song seemingly says its piece in a compact three minutes. Personally, I wouldn't have minded another couple minutes of this-- it almost seems too big to fit into such a short span of time. As a tantalizing teaser for February's The Golden Archipelago, however, "Castaways" is damn near perfect.

MP3:> Shearwater: "Castaways"

[from The Golden Archipelago; out 02/23/10 on Matador]

— David Raposa, December 10, 2009
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fresh-faced import Jonathan Boulet's first single is seasonally inappropriate-- in this hemisphere, at least. The 21-year-old is from Sydney, where it's summer and kids are drawing smiling suns that wear dark glasses as we in the frozen tundra wipe snow off our cars. Boulet has been described by his label as a "skate rat," and this track from his self-titled debut indicates anything but the rad graffitied aesthetics of rail grinders and X Games, with soft watercolors and starry-eyed indie rock. The accompanying video-- entrancing with its trippy kaleidoscopic accents-- managed to garner run-on praise from Kanye West on his blog. Boulet's PSA consists of a vague call to arms to stop doing, well, I'm not sure what, but it involves water. And while the tropically-tinged guitars sure are dreamy, the loftiness sails on without a memorable elemental gust, so this message to the people isn't quite enough to dethrone NBC's The More You Know star.

[from Jonathan Boulet; out now on Evident]

— Kasia Galazka, December 9, 2009
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