Saturday, January 27, 2007

hot soft light

When I think of the Hold Steady, I think back to something music-journo Justin Farrar wrote about the rise of the band Comets on Fire: he calls them a bar band, in fact "the best bar-rock band ever known to man," but something about their acceptance as "in-the-vanguard, underground artists" doesn't sit well with him. His conclusion? It's because Comets on Fire are "all instruments and no storytelling." He, in fact, presents this as the very thing that relegates them to bar-rock status, arguing that bar-bands, by definition, lack storytellers.

I thought this was a pretty good axiom until I heard the Hold Steady album Separation Sunday, an album that rarely strives, sonically speaking, to provide anything more than old-fashioned bar rock, but which lyrically functions as a song cycle roughly on par with The Mountain Goats' All Hail West Texas ("fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys"). The characters on Separation Sunday are born-again Christians or drug-addled burnouts or both, and although the title of the new album, Boys and Girls In America, reveals that the Hold Steady guys are taking aim at bigger themes, the general air of dead-endedness and clutching desperation still permeates.

For instance, this track, "Hot Soft Light," which basically describes the trajectory of every Hold Steady song ever written by rhyming "recreational" with "medical" and then with "tentacles" (later "manacles").

[Available at Amazon]

Monday, January 1, 2007

best of 2006: a top ten

10. Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
Flawed and occasionally indulgent, but St. Elsewhere earns major points for managing to be both a record that I heard or played at just about every party I was at this year and an album-length meditation on mental illness and the fragmentation of [black] identity. Improbable, but the unsettling lyrical content consistently fit perfectly into the alluring vibe generated by Cee-Lo's charismatic croon and Danger Mouse's warm grooves. The most obvious manifestation of this trick can be seen in the way they took a song explicitly about madness and disintegration ("Crazy") and got it to pass as the feel-good pop hit of the year, but the pattern is repeated everywhere on the album, from the inviting cover of the Violent Femmes' menacing "Gone Daddy Gone" to "Necromancing," an ode to necrophilia. Impressive, fascinating. On Downtown (and distributed by Atlantic).
Listen: "Who Cares?," by Gnarls Barkley

9. The Rapture, Pieces of the People We Love
Aside from "45:33," there wasn't a new LCD Soundsystem release last year, but this indie-dance release by the Rapture served as a decent stopgap, as long as you were willing to substitute Luke Jenner's sleazy charisma for James Murphy's subcultural wit. Pieces essentially updates the ideas of the disco-inflected post-punk era for an audience weaned on 80s power-pop: something like Loose Joints reinterpreted by Ric Ocasek. No claims to high significance, but definitely the most fun album I heard all year. On UMVD (aka Universal Music and Video Distribution)
Listen: "Whoo! Alright—Yeah...Uh Huh," by the Rapture

8. Keiran Hebden and Steve Reid, The Exchange Session, Vol. 1
Many, many talented people have attempted to integrate free jazz and electronic music, with outcomes that have ranged from the blandly respectable to the utterly dreadful. This disc, made up of three improvisations between sample-manipulator Keiran Hebden and longtime jazz drummer Steve Reid, avoids these fates, managing to at least partially scale the peaks that characterize the best of ecstatic '60s jazz. Hebden's body of solo work (as Four Tet) is impressive, but he seems especially freed up here by being able to hand off the rhythm duties to Reid; this allows him to stretch out and focus on the role that would normally fulfilled by an especially "free" saxophonist, namely, providing squall and color and noise. The album isn't perfect—there are moments when the pieces lose their way—but this disc provides the most substantial piece of evidence to date that these two branches of music can be successfully wed. On Domino.
Listen: "Soul Oscillations," by Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid

7. Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura, Between
One game you can play, if you're a music geek, is trying to determine the point where "free improvisation" became officially detached from anything resembling jazz. A related game is trying to determine the point where one bifurcated tendril of free improvisation again crossed the territorial lines of genre to become avant-garde electronica, renouncing even the tools of jazz in favor of rewired mixers, detuned radios, dismantled guitars, and repurposed iPods. Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura are among the most interesting practicioners of this branch, producing stark fields of abstract electronic texture that defy easy categorization but which compel forcefully on their own terms. The two CDs comprising Between resemble not music so much as they resemble the sounds you might hear if you could tap into onboard recordings made by an interplanetary probe as it descended through a toxic, static-riddled atmosphere. On Erstwhile.
Listen: "13630 kHz," by Keith Rowe + Toshimaru Nakamura

6. Vampire Can't, Key Cutter
This disc represents three sorts of noisy music fused into an improbably well-oiled hybrid: free-jazz drumming from the ever-astonishing Chris Corsano, abrasive scuzz-rock guitar from Bill Nace, and circuit-bent squee from Jessica Rylan and her homemade machines. The on-paper incompatibility of these modes would seem to dictate that these tracks explode on the launching pad, and it's true that fully half of the songs on the disc last for under two minutes, but the fearsome blazing singularity that they attain in their short and furious lifespans is like something that came straight from the mind of God. On Load.
Listen: "War Lips," by Vampire Can't

5. Girl Talk, Night Ripper
Momus once described mash-ups (here) as "Everything that ever sold a record, all on one plate," and I think he meant it pejoratively, whereas I see it as something of a grail to strive for. We haven't quite gotten there yet, but this album from Gregg Gillis might represent the most successful attempt yet. Night Ripper jettisons the conceptual rigor that undergirds other notable mash-up albums (say, the Kleptones' Night at the Hip-Hopera, or DJ Food's Raiding the 20th Century), replacing it instead with an understanding that increased density equals increased enjoyment. Highest pleasures-per-second count of any album this year. On Illegal Art.
Listen: "Hold Up," by Girl Talk

4. Mrtyu!, Blood Tantra and With Throats As Fine As Needles, s/t
I know that putting "ties" on year-end lists is kind of a cop-out, but these two discs complement one another so well that by year's end it was difficult not to think of them as a unit. They showcase two opposing sides of dronemaster Antony Milton's technique: on Blood Tantra, he submerges the listener into the cauldron of Metal's deep distortion and roar, whereas on Throats Fine As Needles he and his cadre of NZ experimentalists (Campbell Kneale, James Kirk, and Richard Francis) work with quietude and stillness, their palette built largely out of cheap electronics humming softly in subterranean darkness. Look beyond the differences in surface turbulence, though, and both discs reveal themselves as similar investigations, exploring stasis, modulation, tension and release. On 20 Buck Spin and Digitalis, respectively.
Listen: "The Worldy Skein," by Mrtyu!

3. Mountains, Sewn
For the past five years, Brooklyn's Apestaartje label has released a cool twenty discs of pastoral drone, organic noise, and sound art. I own about half of them and there's not a dud in the bunch. Mountains is an Apestaartje "supergroup" of sorts, representing a collaboration between two one-man acts, Anderegg and Aero, who have each recorded albums of abstract electronica which are individually superlative. Together, though, they seem to reinforce one another's strengths, and this album--a combination of pretty acoustic passages and warm electronic texture--is as fine as anything the label's ever put out.
Listen: "Sheets," by Mountains

2. Ghosting, Why Not Be Utterly Changed Into Fire?
The single track that comprises this album spends a half hour exploring the title question, using distorted guitars and squealing machines to conjure a circle of angelic flame around the listener, threatening to consume but also promising to transfigure. This could certainly be described as a noise album—it spends a lot of its time channeling a storm of white-hot needles through the open spaces of your skull, and the experience is undeniably harrowing—but remember that the goal here is transcendence and the methods suddenly invert, seeming magical instead of menacing. No MP3 of this one, as the disc's only track is single-minded in a way that fundamentally resists excerpting. On Jyrk.

1. Sunn O))) / Boris, Altar

Before I say anything, I should acknowledge that a fictional version of this album (accurate down to the participation of Dylan "Earth" Carlson) appeared in the 2005 April Fool's Day edition of the Aquarius Records newsletter, in which the album consists of a single E chord, with each band contributing a single note.

Pretty funny. And there's truth to the fact that this record could have been made with about that much investment of effort: since both Boris and Sunn O))) have rabid fan-bases, both acts could have come together and operated more-or-less on autopilot, piled up by-the-numbers guitar drone, and they probably would still have made bank (it's not for nothing that the title of the fictional parody album is Reserve Not Yet Met). So the fact that the end product isn't content to rest on its laurels is all the more amazing.

There are the requisite "heavy" pieces here: the opener ("Etna") and the closer ("Blood Swamp") are pretty much what you'd expect the collaboration to produce, which is not to say that they're not accomplished pieces of monolithic roar. But the album's real achievement is in the way that the intervening tracks diverge from comfort zones and expectations, and produce four tracks of genre-defying occultist weirdness: "NLT" is a gong-and-bass soundscape, "The Sinking Belle" is a Metal-inflected ballad (with vocals by singer-songwriter Jesse Sykes), "Akuma No Kuma" is an electronic anthem full of messed-up vocoder'd vocals and bombastic horns (maybe the soundtrack to a Conan movie set in Kirby-esque deep space), and "Fried Eagle Mind" is a trance-inducing bit of opiated ambience and static. The bonus disc, featuring Dylan Carlson wrangling daemonic Telecaster all over it, is just plain icing on the cake. This is the only album I bought this year on the day it was released (also the only one I bought at Metal Haven) and the only album I was eagerly anticipating that did not disappoint me (hello, Joanna Newsom and Lady Sovereign).

Listen: "Akuma No Kuma," by Sunn O))) and Boris