Tuesday, 6 July 2010

2010: The Second Quarter - Music

Welcome back to the internet's most glacially regular feature. I talk about what's been dominating the last three months, culturally. Not reviews as much as thoughts. It's half a way of getting to talk about everything I might possibly want to, half a way of keeping track of what's going on at the moment. Please, recommend, and help make the next one.

Musically, April was pretty heavily dictated by what I was writing my 30 Days on. Which remains, in the months that I finished my degree, handed over responsibilities at Redbrick and prepared to face the big bad world, and moved house, probably the most important anything has felt to me. The panic at 11 o'clock the nights I hadn't written an entry yet...

But since, then I have gone seeking the hott new stuff, and I haven't been disappointed. The year has been pretty sexy so far, musically. But it wasn't always so...

2010pt2Marling
Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
Album #2. That's nearly that all that needs to be said about I Speak Because I Can. I haven't read many reviews of it, but I reckon a lot will have leant on the old Difficult Second Album cliché. It's just not as compelling as Alas I Cannot Swim, lyrically or musically. I could try and pick apart why: less tricks up Marling's sleeve, a shift in tone, a generic move into more trad.country territory. But it's actually a bit exhausting to try and pull anything out of Album #2. That's all that really needs to be said.

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

It's probably telling that the newly Glastonbury-headlining Gorillaz have dropped their cartoon faces for those of Albarn, Simonon, Jones, et al. There's no less sense of novelty on Plastic Beach than Demon Days (see the fake breakfast cereal ad Superfast Jellyfish), it's no less sprawling, ambitious, or plain weird (Glitter Freeze), but it's somehow less of a cartoon, and that's stopped me from immediately falling in love with the whole twitching, shaking mess. Doesn't mean it's a worse record, of course. I think it's probably their best. I'm just broken.
KateNash
Kate Nash - My Best Friend is You
There is a definite Kate Nash formula. When her guitar goes like, y'know, and maybe there's a bit of piano, and her voice is all like... The new album opens sounding exactly like that, like the old one. Throughout, she use of those typical Nashisms: the blunt state-the-obvious observations ("Barbecue food is good/You invite me out to eat it, I should") with the purposely flat language and rubbish rhymes. They occasionally shine in the verses, but as usual, fall flat when they have to carry a chorus, looking like Lily Allen-lite. So more of the same, you think.

But it's a trick. My Best Friend is You is more a series of blueprints for a possible second album than an actual record. That first track, Paris, imagines a slightly evolved, slightly more euphoric Nash. There's hyper-neurotic wordy Nash elsewhere. Then there's Don't You Want to Share the Guilt? (an example of Nash's ability to stumble onto simple but handsome and evocative phrasing, every now and then). It opens with that BBQ couplet, and slowly winds up, ending in a big dense spoken word bit, opening with...
"I don't know how more people haven't got mental health problems
Thinking is one of those stressful things I've ever come across
And not being able to articulate what I want to say drives me crazy
I think I should try and read more books and learn some new words
My sister used to read the dictionary, I'm going to start with that"
Which is pretty much exactly my point. And, admittedly, the point of all her critics. But I think it's easy to forget the language thing is an intentional stylistic choice and just dismissing it as stupid is borrrring. It goes on to feature the kind of lyrics I'd quote online in my statuses and profiles if I wasn't too old and self-conscious now. Then, the next song is all banshee screams and Pixies guitars. A Nash who dived back into her record collection and decided, I could be the English Karen O (which she couldn't and I'm glad that ultimately she didn't, but is nice to hear her trying on for a bit). Take Me To A Higher Plane is folksy-Los-Campesinos-backing while Nash pretends she's that woman from the Juno soundtrack.

Mansion Song is the touchstone, though. Listen to it now.

Okay, I'm sure you're listening to it, but I'll tell you what it sounds like anyway. It's terrifying. It stirs all those things I'm unsure about with feminism, post-feminism and irony, Nash spitting the words over the looping drone of a music-box as it winds down, the little porcelain ballerina spinning slower and slower... and then it becomes this hyper version of Foundations. It's frankly unpleasant, in the best possible way.

It's just curiosity that drives me, every time I listen to this album. I sneer the just, as if that's a weakness. But curiosity is rare, certainly not what expected from this album. Curiosity is more than enough.
LCD
LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening
"Love is an open book to a verse of your bad poetry/And this is coming from me".
I've got a huge amount albums to talk about here (it's been a really, really good year months for music, and it was during this album that that realisation clicked) so I'm trying to do them in a nutshell. This moment, in I Can Change (the single release of which being the point this album clicked with me, following which I had to listen to it twice a day for a week) is a pretty perfect encapsulation of the whole album.

Flawless electronic waves - they could come across as cold - beat against your subconscious, while clever, funny and self-deprecating lyrics -that could come off as trite - appeal to you more directly. The song could just fall flat, but inbetween the two, somehow, magix happens. Something in the way it's all performed, in James Murphy's timing particularly, just sells the moment...

And already I regret using a three-second bubble to explain it. Already, the bubble expands.. But, point is: This is Happening is an album with Moments. Sometimes they're lyrical ("We have a black president, you do not, so shut up")
, sometimes they're in the sounds, often they're just in the twists in Murphy's voice, which can leap from its stuffy-noised resting position, into torturous yelps, at a second's notice. It is stuffed with bits to tell your friends about, provided you have the kinds of friends who want to discuss three-or-four-second bits of LCD Soundsystem album tracks. I do. They're just imaginary.
MGMT
MGMT - Congratulations
It's a good year for sequels, isn't it? Bands deal badly with previous success.
Chuck out a lot of the previous sound. Release albums with ridiculous covers (okay, that only applies to this one) ...That said, it's already hard to think that Congratulations ever sounded shocking to me. When I first heard Flash Delirium, the emoticon I most resembled was certainly this one:

:-O

But, really, it's still just pure pop music, isn't it?
To use horrific NMathEmatics*, Congratulations = (Beach Boys + Simon & Garfunkel) x Flaming Lips. Unlike those snapshots from within the cocoon of the new Kate Nash, this emerges polished, slick. The album flows perfectly. Almost too easily, actually, as songs can slip by without you noticing. It's compulsive though. Best bit? It's determined not to let Snobs clomp along to any of its songs three times in one night. So I can remember it as fondly as I feel about it now.
Crystal Castles
Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (II)
This is the one Past Alex was most intrigued by. He left notes on earlier drafts of this very post, asking me how it was (those imaginary friends I mentioned? They're mainly me).

So, @PAST ALEX: Almost unrecognisable. Like power cables in a sewer. Playing with noise. Yes they did that before but that was sharp, clean noise and this is NOISE. Dirty, thick sludge. You can't dance to it. I don't think. But then ... sharp edges and That Voice come out and it could only be them. But rebuilt from the ground up from the smouldering remains. We have the technology.

Much as I was intrigued, and much as I like it, It's ended up being, on this list, the album that's made the least impression on me, one way or the other. I have no concrete 'it's like this answer'. But hey, maybe that's fitting. They're not concrete, they're crystal.
Also, it totally got superceded by...
15383391x
Sleigh Bells - Treats
Treats is brilliant. It's also immensely difficult to think about, its first achievement being the efficient flipping of a switch to 'off' in your brain. It appeared, a slippery black monolith in our midst, apparently innocently enough. A free stream, people wondered? On MIA's label? Oh, go on then. And then, like a Futurama brain-slug, it took over everyone who clicked that link. It's become quite the thing. It remains difficult to explain. I will try:
-It's one of those albums where seeing the cover changes things somehow. Of course, you think. And a new conception of it slides into place: a warped shrine to teenagedom. Like an audio version of Charles Burns' Black Hole. All that noise and drama inside your head just turned up to horribly ridiculous volume. Which, I guess, is what hormones do.
-Speaking of volume: listening to this again for these purposes won't be same. It's not the same without good speakers (I'm in the middle of packing up my room as I write the first draft of this). As Tim of Fire, Noise & Information put it, it deserves playing so loud molecules start to separate.
-It's noisy and kind of unpleasant in all the right ways, but it's also catchy. It'll dig its hooks effortlessly into your brain until you have a few seconds on constant loop for the rest of your day. Single handledly inventing the genre of noise-pop?
-One one tiny spot where I can get a grip on the album, any friction at all. That's the start of the eponymous Treats, which sounds like heavily distorted Pixies. Being sucked into a black hole. The only other relevant touchstone is Crystal Castles. Maybe. Sonic Youth? A tiny bit, perhaps.
Robyn
Robyn - Body Talk, Pt 1
Elsewhere in perfect-teen-drama-land, our icy Queen sits and taps her cane.
"Back in suburbia kids get high and make out on the train
Then endless incomprehensible boredom takes a hold again"
This is still working its way into my brain and becoming one of my favourite things. So expect a little stand-alone write-up about it at some point. All this teen stuff makes me glad pop music doesn't have the identity/validation crisis that videogames have**. I mean, A) because it's what it's best at. And B) cus... YEAH!

I can't decide whether this album has the room to jump whole-heartedly into the public consciousness like so much off Robyn did. Case in point: first hearing Dancing on My Own of this on the radio. The experience was tarred somewhat by the DJ saying he'd been trying to work out who's meant to be singing. Is it from the point-of-view of the boy? The girl? Robyn? Some kind of omniscient narrator?

Not to be a pop-snob***, but it's a pretty straightforward narrative and that man was an idiot. It made me appreciate, where I often forget, just how exceptional and unusual the quality of pop Robyn's making, aiming and firing straight into the heart of the main-stream is.

Standard Fare - The Noyelle Beat
Sounds, in the best way, like something that could've been made by people I know. Offers a more on-the-ground approach to late teenage (/perhaps early twenties) drama. Features songs about sleeping with underage partners ands regretting it, but not in the socially acceptable way. Has a slight tendency to slip into the background and over-repetition of choruses. But they're good choruses to good songs. This an album of good songs, simply, and though that sounds like faint praise, I want to stress how good it is. It is good.
standardfare

Music Go Music - Expressions
I remember, in the grips of my obsession with the Warm in the Shadows, giving in and googling Music Go Music. Who were they, and when could I get more of this music? ...The most commonly recurring words were 'Abba' and 'irony', or 'pastiche'. Surely not, I thought. It couldn't be the same band that produced the luxurious, cat-stretching-out-in-a-warm-place 9-minute song I'd spent the last week listening to on repeat.

So, Expressions is interesting. I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea of pastiche or, worse, parody. That winking, knowing attitude. I try hard not to be a snob - in my early teens I was certainly a victim of the 'only serious music is important'-itis I now recognise as a symptom of Rockism - but I struggle with anything too knowingly arch, especially when it doesn't label itself POP in big glittery letters.

It just seems counter-productive to evoking any genuine emotional response. Here, songs features couplets like "I drifted alone, in the ocean of life/But then you pulled me, dear, from the waters of strife". It's Abba with the melodrama turned up to ... and note how I grimace saying this ... 11.

It's not quite real pop, either: playing it to the Lovely Girlfriend (alternative moniker: She Who Loves Abba), she kind of bounced off the surface. So you're left with this damaged, neither-here-nor-there middleground of an album. I could go on for another couple of hundred words, but I've done enough of that, I think... so suffice to say, I like it. I'm not sure I should like it, or why I like it, or most of all how much I like it. But I do. No irony.
music-go-music-expressions

In singles, meanwhile, the big thing has been Big Boi, as the get-Alex's-pants-wet-for-the-album machine rolls on (currently streamable on Big Boi's MySpace, but it'll have to wait for next time). Shutterbugg and Fo Yo Sorrows have both been incredibly delicious. If you know me, or are a good person, you've almost definitely heard them repeatedly. Sometimes, amongst the seemingly perpetual point-missing and idiocy on Youtube, someone manages with amazing simplicity to hit a particular idea right - dink - on the head. In the words of GETsomeDRINKS, "wake up the neighborhood with this stuff****". Thanks, GETsome.

The new Kylie, All The Lovers*****, is the first thing she's released since something clicked in my head regarding Kylie whilst watching the video to Slow (which has bobbed up repeatedly since on music channels, alongside the new one, as if to remind me): both in terms of seeing what Paul Morley sees in her (i.e. that she's the perfect pinnacle of pop), and what my Year 8 Geography teacher Mr O'Laughlin saw in her (i.e. that she's fit). The way pop stars clicking with you transforms the rest of their work from there is one of the joys I'm only recently discovering. (See also: Rihanna, whose Te Amo is good and I like a lot more than anything pre-Rude Boy, but isn't doing amazing things to my brain, and I reckon I'm cutting slack due to being, well, post-Rude Boy.)

And that's it. For now. I'm already starting to compile the list I'll have listened to and want to write on in October... See you there.
SDC16997
Alex, out.

*I think we've discussed this before: I'm no phrase-coiner.
**Which I've been considering a lot, following the apparent conclusion of Ebert-gate.
***Ha. Too late.
****Ah. The old censoring external rudeness. I've missed you.

*****(Which also, incidentally, continues pop-music's love of combining the words All and Love (see: All is Love, All Is Full Of Love).

3 comments:

Tom said...

I wish Gorillaz' live performances involved Jamie Hewlett drawing cartoons onto a projector screen. The band doesn't really make sense without him.

Tim said...

First of all, thanks for the shout out! Always gratifying to know someone's reading my nonsense.

So many of these albums are ones I've been meaning to check out and haven't got round to. It's good to know they're worth getting round to - I'd heard some mixed reviews of Plastic Beach especially, which was a little disconcerting. Hadn't even thought to try Spotify for these - I'm always surprised by how much new stuff you can find on there.

Also, surely it's an N.M.Equation?

Keep up the good work!

Alex said...

@Tom: I kind of agree. I suspect that's the comics fan in both of us talking, though.

@Tim: Spotify is an absolute godsend. It Saved Me From A World of Piracy!, etc.
Also, your 30 Days is annoyingly good so far. Queued it up for a long train journey the other day. Most satisfying.
Also curse your better term-inventing than I!

(Now, if only I could get a Tam. Tum. Tem? Tym?)

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.