Sunday, December 30, 2012

Preview: My Gold Mask - "Leave me Midnight"

Although Warpaint have fallen out of the spotlight since their 2010 release "The Fool", they have proven that the world is ready for more dark, female-fronted rock bands. After all, the buzz earned them considerable attention from critics and actual air time on MTV: a network that almost never plays rock videos anymore (let alone videos at all). That has to count for something.

My Gold Mask's front-woman is drawing from the same dark pool of inspiration as Warpaint's Emily Kokal and even The Raveonette's Sharin Foo. Cavernous drumming is paired with the echoing, pitch-shifted guitar which ends up sounding like calypso drums being played inside an airplane hangar. The music sounds larger than life. It also sounds amazingly tribal and primitive. The echoing vocals are evocative of a group of monks belting out plainsong inside a giant cathedral. 

The full album will drop in February. If the timing proves to be good, and the music is dispersed in just the right way,  My Gold Mask could definitely make a big splash. Their sound is sombre and mysterious enough to stick out in a sea of new releases this year but close enough to a paradigm we know has worked in the past.

"Nightfalls" has the album's strongest introduction. Feeling much like Patti Smith's "Because the Night", it demonstrates real hook-writing. "I, Animal" also has an amazing intro hook that makes it immediately distinct. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Taco Leg - Taco Leg

[These chaps are from Australia and, as far as I'm concerned, they pretty much came out of thin air. The only buzz that led me to the band was a short Pitchfork review. I avoided the band for days because of how terrible the name is but then I caved to curiosity. I won't waste any time quipping about how stupid the band name is. It is a stupid band name. Haha. I'm so clever for recognizing what is manifestly true. Ok, so I got that out of the way. Now, let's go to the review.]

Taco Leg's music could have come straight out of the 80s. Gritty production, gritty instrumentation, combined with gritty, bored, pissed off, working-man's-blues-type-lyrics all point to real authenticity. Many bands struggle for years to pull off that kind of hard-to-fake credibility. The only downside to being so true to life is the fact that, naturally, the product isn't all that glamorous.

While the lyrics are good, and there is a delicious, toe-tappingly simple punk beat, Taco Leg's songs sound like kind of trudge for the people actually playing the music. There is always an irascibility and a sneering to punk but in this case, they sound like they really don't want to be recording, at all. They sound like they would rather be smoking pot, sleeping, or as the front man complains in "Shut it Down", "I wished I'd stayed home and watched TV." 

This is definitely a valid expression of the "fuck you, world" punk ethic and they are certainly not the first to do it, but when combined with the lackadaisical vocals, it might lead some reviewers and critics to actually believe that Taco Leg really don't give a fuck at all, musically. While the band probably does care deeply about what they're doing, some reviewers are inevitably going to feel like they're being fucked with and are going to crap all over Taco Leg's efforts. In a commercial sense, this is going to be a constant frustration for them but in a punk sense: it's pure gold. Something in Taco Leg is stirring up strong feelings, especially in their detractors [if I were an illiterate idiot I would have said "haters" here].

But back to the actual judgment of their debut: while it is good fun, an amazing record it is not. It feels really good to listen to and is full of energy but the stripped-down production and stuttery guitar playing will make lots of people turn it off. This doesn't mean Taco Leg won't succeed by the power of pure determination [and I really hope they do] but this is not Wire 2.0 [as much as I want it to be]. But as debuts go, and many go much worse than this, it is a promising start. [TRANSLATION: Taco Leg, PLEASE keep making more music, just don't get comfy yet]

1. Shut it Down 
2. Kid Legs
3. Hide 

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 year-end: albums I missed

I am turning over a new leaf here. I would say that I am recovering from a case of acute musical Attention Deficit Disorder. I used to try pretty hard to keep up with the newest releases and roll out blog entries to address them. Yet, this year, I've strayed a lot. I start listening to new music from labels I like, from artists I admire, with the intent to review, but I never do. If you go back in time on the blog's Facebook fan page, you'll see more than one apology for spottiness and consistency issues.

Two weeks ago, I started my first full-time job at World Oil magazine, and it's given a structure to my life that I've lacked since I left college last May. So now I plan to return to regular entries for good, mostly capitalizing on my lunch breaks and a quiet, new, working environment where I can actually write in peace.

Here are a few albums I discovered at the tail end of 2012. When I say discovered, I mean that I finally sat down and listened to them in full. Most of these, with the exception of Metz, I've know about for a long time.

Hopefully, next year, I will have a much shorter, top 10 blog post of albums that I've already reviewed. Since I've already quit smoking this year, maybe being more committed to this blog can be my resolution. See you in 2013.

Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

I picked this up, quite literally, just 15 minutes ago, and I am in love. I love R&B in general but to a large extent, it's been pushed out of the top 40 by hip-hop. Soul and R&B used to be the predominate forms of popular black musical expression before rap and even though today hip-hop still contains shreds of soul still, I feel like, in general, that's becoming less and less true. This is not a dig at hip-hop, I just happen to be far more a fan of R&B/soul. So naturally, I was extremely surprised when I discovered just how soul-oriented channel ORANGE actually is. 

Normally, Beyonce is the closest the mainstream gets to picking up good R&B (well, we also had the fantastic "Alabama Shakes" explode this year too, I guess) and I think Beyonce is vastly overrated and she annoys the hell out of me. She's soul-lite. You've got Usher too, who actually doesn't particularly bother me, but his songwriting is so modern and radio-oriented that it's hard to enjoy his fabulous voice. Frank Ocean, however, is the real deal. Although the album is experimental and by no means a work of pure R&B, Ocean's voice shines through the mix and is the centerpiece of the music. That is a hallmark of work normally from the golden age of soul: magnificent vocals are king and everything else is either accompaniment or just plain ancillary. No throbbing synth tones or the now ever-present utz utz utz to poppify things.

I won't go into specifics since basically everyone else has already listened to this album, I just wanted to make it clear that it goes on my list.

Tame Impala - Lonerism

Chillwave died off (or at least went into a kind of extended coma) around the same time Cut Copy's "Zonoscope" debuted, two summers ago. The mellow psych revival has now been out of the spotlight for some time and 2012's biggest moments, if you ask the critics, were largely Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. However, the success and overall positive reception of Tame Impala's Lonerism has allowed a bit of the old (Zonoscope seems like such a long time ago now), familiar, chillwave warmth to seep back into many magazines'/websites'/blogs' year-end lists

Building on a very obviously Beatles-esque aesthetic framework, Tame Impala's music has mellowed out considerably from their sometimes hard-rocking debut. It's almost like going from The Who's Live at Leeds to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. There are still the flawless, 60s rock, vocal harmonies but they are rarely disturbed by loud guitar or modern-sounding lead melodies. Instead the guitar is delicately poured on, along with phased out synths, and even a little grand piano. 

"Elephant" is the only time the volume ever goes up with its chugging, palm-muted chorus but even that turns, with the help of a warbling organ, into a colorful psychedelic romp. There's even a riff that sounds like it was lifted right out of "Money" but if it was, it was definitely more homage than hubris.

The bridge in "Sun's Coming Up" and all of the heart-breaking "Why won't they talk to me?" are the album's highlights.

Mac Demarco - 2

Demarco has restored my faith in "indie-rock". For the past few years, I've steered pretty clear of any up-and-coming "indie" band who exhibited too much levity and playfulness because in my experience, lately that's become a clever disguise for having shite songwriting or technical abilities.

WARNING: the next graph is a diatribe and has nothing to do with the album review. Read at your own risk.

[Best Coast is probably the clearest example. It's as if their music was written to project: "oh yeah, we're minimal because that's just who we are and somehow you're supposed to gather from this that we're very stylized and original when really there's almost nothing complex or compelling going on in our songs". You can see that stupid crap in action right here. They manage to take a mysterious, moody, tension-filled, song and dumb it down to such horrifying vapidity that it sounds like it was written, on a sunny day, inside an Urban Outfitters, specifically for an Apple commercial. They would call that juxtaposition of a dark-ish song and peppy music "ironic" (secretly of course, not publicly) but I would call that offensive and bad. To avoid this problem, I've stuck largely to heavi-er, weirder, darker music. There are poseurs here too, but somehow when I encounter them, it's less annoying to me.]

The lighter side of rock, what some people would call twee pop, has plenty of valid music, I just get easily irritated by cliches, and I tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Anyway, Mac Demarco appeals to all of the things I like in competently written "indie" music: first, a sufficient complexity to suggest that it's not meant to be ironic and that actual effort went into it and at least a dash of seriousness at points to show that there is some real emotion invested in it. Mac has both of these things in addition to a voice, that when combined with the music, reminds me of sadcore visionary Mark Kozelek of the Red House Painters. Some of the lyrics are iffy at points but the entire experience is so enjoyable, I find it pretty easy to forgive him. The typical palette on the album is drums, bass, Mac's sleepy vocals, and his shimmering chorus-bathed guitar playing. Mac is a very decent musician, producing, on "2", more than a few stellar licks. 

"Cooking up Something good" and "Freaking out the Neighborhood" are the best examples of universally appealing Demarco songs from this album.

Metz - METZ

For a year with very few moments of musical excitement, Metz gave us something special.
Actually, the kind of exhilaration I got from their debut is similar to my feelings on Ceremony's 2012 release, Zoo. Yet the theme of this post is going to be great music that passed me by throughout the year so I won't talk about Zoo, I actually reviewed that one.

Metz are similar to Ceremony given their post-hardcore genre and penchant for passionately noisy rock with a punk energy. Metz are definitely more noisy than Ceremony. If Ceremony is evocative of post-punk legends Wire, Metz would be more like Pussy Galore but with more yelling and doom. Notably, Metz is very fond of using (and perhaps abusing, depending on who you ask) feedback and amplifier chatter as texture. Lyrics are hard-to-make-out but are not screamed.

Overall the record is a little repetitive but it's so enthusiastically executed that that matters little, which I guess you could say of punk, in general. The dissonant vamping in "sad pricks" is the album's highlight and a good overall summary of Metz energy. I expect Metz, along with younger bands like Iceage, to be instrumental in coming years.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Jandek - Atlanta Saturday

It is always an occasion when Houston's mysterious, bearded bard releases a new album. There's never any notice and absolutely no promotion. I only find out when my inbox is filled with a deluge of chain emails from the Jandek mailing list about first impressions and song meanings. People have a tendency to hit "reply all" in the fan club so it is literally impossible to ignore the emails when something like that occurs in the world of Jandek. 

Atlanta Saturday was recorded in Georgia in 2007 and is a surprisingly serene and harmonic addition to the Jandek discography. Instead of playing his electric guitar, as is customary, Sterling sits down at the piano. The representative is accompanied by bells, strings, and what sounds like an oboe. Much of the performance is a quiet but lively modern classical style, pregnant with such pomp and gravitas that even its seeming joviality is loaded with precarious emotion: a sound that brings Philip Glass to mind. Sterling and his vocals seem more invested in the performance than usual. What typically sounds aloof and neurotic about his voice instead this time sounds vulnerable, sincere, and ready to share some unnamed grief or burden. 

He plunks steadily and rather harmoiously on the piano until "Part 6" which devolves into a chaotic whirlwind of simultaneous, seemingly unrelated melodies coming from each instrument and ramming forcefully into each other. But somehow there is still a sense of sharing and collaboration. Around minute 8 of this longest and most interesting track, Sterling comes unhinged again and descends into the old, familiar, depression and turmoil, "I just got so tired of it all. I'd rather stare at the bland oasis, the barren track of silence ambles the pictures passing by." Final tracks, 7 and 8, leave the listener with more beautiful, safe, classical improvisation and Sterling crooning once again in a more subdued manner.

It's a great treat for die-hard fans like me and wouldn't be a horrific place for Jandek newbies to get their feet wet. Getting ones' self used to the subtleties and strange beauty of Jandek is like boiling a frog alive: it must be done gradually or the subject will inevitably jump out and away.