Chad VanGaalen is a singer songwriter basement-recorder guy from Calgary (home of the Saddle Dome!). Cokemachineglow.com gave him a bunch of praise in their year-end round-up last week, and I really liked what I heard of him. After listening to the album a few times, I think he has a lot of potential to record an amazing album sometime, but this one isn't quite it. Still there are some good songs on it, and the video for "Molten Light" is really... really... something.
Simon And Garfunkel's "America" is a great song. There is no doubt about that. But have you ever listened to Yes's cover version of it? Holy cow. It might just be my favorite cover song. The first time I heard it (as a bonus track on the end of the CD version of Fragile), I didn't know it was the Simon And Garfunkel song at first, since, you know, their version doesn't start with a 5 minute psychedelic jam interspersed with portions of "America" from West Side Story. Then suddenly the guitars and keyboards drop out, and the vocals start, and the next 20 minutes or so (possibly exaggerating there) are just pure bliss. The best part of all is in the middle section, when the band suddenly decides that, even though they're an uptight British prog band, the best way to sing a song about America is by turning themselves into fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd. The whole thing is beyond awesome. And then their keyboard player quit the band to produce a ice-skating musical about King Arthur.
And Justice For All
The criticism of Metallica's 1988 ...And Justice For All album is the awful, awful recording quality. Specifically, its noticeable lack of bass. Cliff Burton had recently died, and whether it was out of spite, remorse, or whatever, they just pushed the new guy's bass back practically to zero in the mix. Basically, it sounds like it was recorded with cardboard microphones. In the last week or two, I've been snooping around the net a little bit to find if anyone has ever actually gone through and re-recorded the bass parts over the existing record (like a guy did a few years back to a White Stripes album), just to hear what it might sound like. And wouldn't you know it, thanks to the ease of digital audio nowadays, there's a lot of it out there. Some guy actually posted a bunch of recordings on YouTube with "enhanced original bass" on them. The bass is actually way too loud in the mix, but it's incredibly interesting to hear the parts that are supposed to be on the real record. Then tonight I downloaded the entire album that some guy "remastered" himself; basically he beefed up the sound, added some reverb and a little bass (but didn't re-record anything or use any master tracks). While that was fairly interesting to hear, it really makes me hope that some day the band decides to take the master tapes of the album and do a legitimate remastering job on it. But really, as long as the album has "One" and "Dyers Eve" on it, the other seven songs could be kazoo solos recorded with a Fischer Price cassette tape recorder and it would still be better than just about every metal album recorded before of since.
Steve's Favorites of 2008
Steve's Favorites of 2008
1. Shearwater - Rook
2. Lambchop - OH (Ohio)
3. Max Tundra - Parallax Error Beheads You
4. Black Keys - Attack and Release
5. Xiu Xiu - Women As Lovers
6. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Lie Down In The Light
8. David Byrne And Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
8. Benji Hughes - A Love Extreme
9. Randy Newman - Harps And Angels
10. Opeth - Watershed
Women As Lovers
The first track off of Xiu Xiu's Women As Lovers album, which came out way back in January of 2008, is a little tune called "I Do What I Want, When I Want." And for the last 12 months, I've been completely in love with it, though I haven't really talked to anyone about it, or made anyone listen to it. The reason for this is because I think most of you would hate it, and then, in turn, hate me after I recommend it. But this song absolutely hooked me, all year. Song of the year, by far, hands down, no contest. The melodies are just everywhere, and they flow and move and cascade and stop and start, and sounds come out of nowhere, sounds that seem to have no business suddenly appearing. And while the whole song is very pop-structured (and catchy as hell), no 10 seconds of it sounds like any other 10 seconds of it. The bass drum will play a bunch of notes in a row and then stop. A descending distorted keyboard line just keeps descending until it turns into mush. A zombie saxophone. 4 bars (and no more) of female vocals. And those stupid little "do do do do do do" vocal parts keep popping in to anchor the whole song, just to prove that Xiu Xiu is better than you. Anyway, the point it is, I can't contain my enjoyment of this song. And the best part is that Women As Lovers is, as a whole, the first entirely listenable album Xiu Xiu has put out since Knife Play (and how listenable that album is can certainly be argued).
Tha Carter III
Apparently this Lil Wayne guy is a big deal. I'd heard of him, of course, but I had no idea until the last few weeks that he was pretty much the #1 everything this year. Everyone from Source to Pitchfork raves about how he's practically the best rapper in the world, and this newest album of his has been on just about every top-10 list I've seen this year. Stuff like this drives me crazy, because I could've walked by Lil Wayne on the street, while he's rapping his hit songs and I wouldn't know who he was. So I gave in and listened to some samples and thought he actually sounded pretty good (and the "Andre 3k" reference certainly won me over), so last night at Target I bought it on a whim. And after almost getting all the way through it (stupid 70 minute rap albums!), I have to say I'm still curious, but a little disappointed. Clearly, the guy can rap. He's smart, witty, good with words, has a good voice and uses it well. But the beats and the songs themselves mostly don't interest me at all. It's just so scattered and random and--uh--dumb. But I tell you what, if someone can take the beats and music from the new Heiruspecs album (which are really fantastic) and get Lil Wayne to rap over it, sign me the hell up. Otherwise, I might just have to stick with thoughtful, sensitive pop rock.
I finally got around to buying a Vic Chesnutt album. It's good stuff, but I can't get over the fact that I simply don't like him. Not as a singer or a songwriter... but as a person. This is especially difficult to say considering he's a recovering alcoholic who is paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. But when I listen to his songs, I get the same feeling I get when I listen to Jim O'Rourke and the Super Furry Animals--no matter how nice and well-crafted the music is, it is far less enjoyable when the words come from the mouth of a cynical jerk.
So the new Heiruspecs album is finally out, and I gave it a listen this morning. My first impression is that while there's nothing inherently bad about it, there just wasn't any one track that really stuck with me. And with 21 tracks on the damn thing, you'd think the odds would be in its favor! I think it all comes down to hooks, or the lack thereof. The rapping is solid, the lyrics are fine--if a little too self serious, and the band's backing beats are top notch (except for some questionable "hard rock" experiments), but there just aren't any hooks that do the job as well as, say, "Heartsprings" or "5ves." Both of those tracks are setting the bar incredibly high, I'll admit, but it's still a bummer that they can't get back up to that level. But oh well, maybe it will grow on me after a couple more listens.
Autolux really drives me crazy. They've been around for 8-9 years now, and yet they've only released one album. Now, 4 years after that first one, they're finally (maybe) getting around to releasing a second one. A year ago, they said it would be "mid summer." Then in April, they finally released a single and said the album would come out "soon enough." Now they're saying it will be "after New Years." Obviously. I guess I just don't get what could possibly take them so long. Oh well. There's a new instrumental up on their Myspace page to listen to, anyway. It's called "Fat Kid." But it's not going to be on the new album, so who cares.
Always The Bridesmaid: A Singles Series
After looking for weeks to find it, I finally came across the Decemberists' "Always A Bridesmaid" records at the Cheapo on Snelling. It's a series of three vinyl-only singles (and B-sides) that aren't on any other albums or EPs, and are well worth the somewhat ridiculous pricetag. They all have beautiful die-cut and silver leafed packaging, and (as usual) cool illustrations by Carson Ellis. But beyond all that, the music is all really solid--especially first song "Valerie Plame," which is probably the best song they've done since "The Sporting Life." Most of the songs really prove a point I made on my previous Decemberists post; for all the focus they've put lately on big "proggy" arrangements and epic, quirky historical English-major lyrics, they might be at their best when sticking to simple pop tunes with much simpler lyrical themes. I mean, really, would you rather spend your time listening to "The Infanta," or "Grace Cathedral Hill"? And no, the answer can't be "neither."
Synecdoche, New York Soundtrack
I finally gave in and bought Jon Brion's Synecdoche, New York Soundtrack on iTunes last night (I know, I know), and my first impressions were pretty much correct. It's very score-y. BUT, the last song on it is this little 40's-50's sounding ode to Schenectady, that was quaint and cute at first, until I realized that the male choir that was singing was entirely Jonny Boy Brion himself! Totally singing in this put-on archaic-choir-guy voice. I couldn't believe it. And then I listened to the lyrics, and they were all about death, and regret, and those sorts of things, which is pretty amazing, given the tone of the song, and the themes of the movie, it was yet another Jon Brion triumph!
Castaways And Cutouts
Enough years have past now that I'm just going to go ahead and say it: I think Castaways and Cutouts is the Decemberists' best album. Yes, everything they've done since has all been excellent in its own right, but there's something about Castaways that lets it dodge some of the potholes that their later albums occasionally hit. Since it was their first album, there's a certain lack of self-consciousness that makes all of the ridiculous lyrics seem just a little more honest, and the arrangements are interesting, upbeat, but never overblown. Basically, they weren't trying to outdo themselves yet. Funny how when it came out, everything written about them compared them (favorably and otherwise) to Neutral Milk Hotel. And now, listening to the record years later, that comparison doesn't enter my mind for a second.
In August I bought Libby a record player for her birthday. It's a new Sony turntable that has a USB port to connect to a computer, so you can import your records onto your iPod or whatever. So today I finally experimented with it using a copy of Randy Newman's Little Criminals that I bought last night. I'm having annoying problems with it so far; after about a minute of recording, it turns into a mess of distortion and doubled audio. I haven't figured out why that's happening yet. But, the little bit that it did record is surprisingly high quality... the hisses and pops are minimal, and the sound is full and beefy. There's also something a lot more personal and engaging about the process of importing from a record that you don't get when just ripping a CD into iTunes. Despite the time and effort it takes, your copy of the music will sound entirely different than anyone else's. Plus, while you're importing it, you have almost no choice to to sit and actually listen patiently to the music while it's being recorded. Imagine that.
Dammit John Legend. Your new album is not very good. Motherfucker. And yet Andre 3000's appearance on the second track makes it almost worth the 8.99 I paid for it.
Paul McCartney just put out a new album with a dude from Killing Joke, who now produces for U2 and some other big bands. From what I've heard of it so far, it sounds better than it actually is. Literally. When you hear it, it sounds like it has to be great; a return to some of McCartneys heavy hitting rock stuff with that other band of his. But then when you stop and really listen, the tunes just aren't there. Like his last couple albums, it's so, so close to being great. But it just doesn't get there. I need to give it a more thorough listen, though.
808s & Heartbreak
As much as I want to hate Kanye West, I just can't do it. Because despite his cartoonishly narcissistic public persona, when it comes to music he clearly gets it. And not only does he get it, but he actually is out there trying to do something interesting with his career. So he had a huge debut album, and how does he follow it up? "Oh, I'll hire Jon Brion to record a bunch of orchestral swells and organ ditties." And then decides to be the third Daft Punk for a while. And now, out of nowhere, he's like "Hey everyone, I'm Kanye West and I'm going to release an entire album of minimalistic, electronic, Peter-Gabrial-inspired songs, where I don't rap, and channel all my vocals through a vocoder." And not only did he do it (pretty well, might I add), but he did it on a whim! This guy is one of the most popular and biggest-selling artists of this century, and one day he just decided to forgo the typical months-long gestation, record company approval, and peer pressure, and recorded an album of music he just wanted to record. And then slapped some beautiful artwork on it, and released it a matter of a month or two. Forget Radiohead (they weren't the biggest music celebrities in the world when they slaved over Kid A), Kanye is the goddamn Beatles.
Shearwater's Rook is probably my favorite album that came out this year. If I was the kind of jackass who made lists of such things (which I am), it would be right up there on the top. I listened to it last night while sitting in the Target Center watching Kevin Garnett and the Celtics kick the Timberwolves' collective ass. It's the perfect soundtrack for the Kafka-esque internal struggle that is a Minnesota Timberwolves game.
Bring It On
Gomez just released a 10th anniversary collectors edition version of their (still awesome) first album Bring It On. Two which I respond: "What!?" It's been 10 years? This blows my mind. I'd never really been hit by the shock of a anniversary edition of an album I've liked before, so this is a new feeling. I can so clearly remember hearing Gomez for the first time on 120 Minutes, going out and getting their album at Down In The Valley (used, nonetheless) the next day. And the fact that 10 years has passed between then and now is something I can't quite fathom. And now that I think about it, Failure's Fantastic Planet has to be 11 or 12 years old by now! Kids who were covered in placenta when it was released are now awkwardly talking to girls and, I don't know, swearing! We're all getting old.
I know I posted about Sail Away already, but I hadn't gotten all the way through it until this morning. And let me tell you, the final cut on the album, "God's Song," is unbelievable. If you ever wanted proof that Randy Newman is more than just hokey Disney soundtracks, listen to it. The piano work--despite being a basic 12-bar blues pattern--is beautiful, and the lyrics are equal parts cynical, scathing, and funny. (The Youtube version linked to here is okay, but the album recording has a much better pace).
Parallax Error Beheads You
I've listened to this Max Tundra album about 4 times in the last 24 hours. It's total insanity, but I can't stop. Not that it's totally mindblowingly amazing or anything... I just feel that my life is a little bit better when I am listening to it.
Parallax Error Beheads You
You probably already heard this from E! News Daily, but the new Max Tundra album came out today. I'm excited. Max Tundra is this British dude who makes electronic pop music that openly laughs in the face of other electronic pop music. He is stupidly talented on both the "electronic" and "pop" halves of the genre, and basically makes a mockery of every other artist who has every tried to combine a melody and a cut-up beat. That said, I think this new album is really good, but becomes complete overkill at some points; it's like listening to The Jackson 5 on your walkman in the middle of a rave while chewing on sugar cubes... and then getting punched in the face.
Downward is Heavenward
This is just my weekly notice to the public that I think Hum is awesome. Now go back to your business.
Breakfast In America
As I was listening to Supertramp this evening while nearly stepping in front of an oncoming light rail train on a slick sidewalk, it occurred to me that if there's anything you wouldn't want on your iPod as the medical investigator scans through it to piece together the situation, Supertramp would have to be pretty high on the list.
Synecdoche, New York Soundtrack
We went to see Charlie Kaufman's new movie Synecdoche, New York on Saturday, and while I haven't glued enough pieces of my exploded skull back together to give any reasonable critique of the movie, I am pleased to say that my boy-toy Jon Brion did the soundtrack for it. The music wasn't too prevalent in the film, but from what I heard (and the clips I listened to on iTunes) make it seem like a pretty nice listen. I'd say it's more similar to Eternal Sunshine than to Punch Drunk Love or Huckabees. Very score-y, although there doesn't seem to be any one overarching melodic theme. And it's topped off with a couple of jazzy pop songs he wrote, which are (unfortunately, in my opinion) sung by a female jazz singer. Pretty good stuff nonetheless. And the movie is a thing to behold.
The Black Album
Wherever I May Roam came up on my iPod's shuffle function today. It really reminded me how unjustly the Black Album is criticized by people nowadays. So your Coors-drinking, high-school-dropout second cousin likes it--so what! Have you really listened to it lately? It's crisp, pristine, and HUGE. But if it isn't suddenly 1994 again, I would guess that answer to that question would be no.
After voting on Tuesday, Libby and I poked into Treehouse Records really quick, and I picked up a used copy of Randy Newman's Sail Away. I had never heard the title track before, but when I cued it up to play when I got home, it ended up being pretty much the perfect post-election song to listen to. In America you'll get food to eat / Won't have to run through the jungle / And scuff up your feet / You'll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day / It's great to be an American. How very true.