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Friday, August 31, 2012

Leftovers: August 2012

Leftover Music:
Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
        I can't stand Bitte Orca. No really, the disc drives my up the wall. One of the most ballyhooed albums of the last several years, Dirty Projectors' 2009 effort was praised for its originality and non-conformity, subsistent of pop songs prone to veer wildly in unexpected directions. But what others found innovative just kind of made my head hurt, one delicious hook after another dashed by dissonant harmonies, and manic time-signiture change-ups. So when the group's 2012 effort, Swing Lo Magellan, was released just under two months ago to roaring applause, I took on a, 'fool me once,' sort of attitude. And then I finally gave the thing a try, and it was love at first listen.

        Who knew that Dirty Projectors could be this personable, this warm, or this inviting? Swing Lo Magellan is a love album, one of the finest and most affecting of 2012, an earthy production by a band accustom to spending their free time in outer space. Which isn't to say that these guys have lost all their edge: See What She Seeing's lovely harmonies and swelling strings are gloriously leveled by a spaz-out drum machine, while About to Die finds a way to blend longing, morbidity, and self-realization into a pitch-perfect pop oddity. Bandleader Dave Longstreth's vocal elasticity is finally a force of good, backed by the ever-resplendant croons of bandmates Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. The disc has a hugely communal feeling, handing over a gorgeous, shimmering track wholly to the lady vocalists (The Socialites), while neglecting to edit out some of the quiet, humorous mumblings that likely peppered the band's botched takes.

        Where Bitte Orca felt adamantly resistant to easy classification and comparison, Swing Lo practically invites it with open arms. A touch of Velvet Underground here, a dab of Neil Young there, a helping of Doo-Wop for added flavor; those who feel the need to name-check will have a field day, as will those with ears. Never before have we heard Longstreth feel so confident without wonky song structures to hide behind, front, center, and unadorned in both the sunset stroll of the title track, and the rosy sway of Dance For You. His efforts become even stronger when he shares the spotlight, floating assuredly above Coffman and Dekle on Impregnable Question, a ballad featuring a lyrical earnestness largely unseen in today's musical landscape, let alone DP's normative freak-show. If you had told me two months ago that the line, "I need you/And you're always on my mind," would repeatedly escape Longstreth's mouth without a hint of irony or foreboding, I would have called you a liar. Turns out, it sounds unfathomably natural. This all goes without mentioning Just From Chevron, both the disc's most radiant and challenging track, opened and closed with the bewitching vocal chemistry of Coffman and Dekle.

        A perfect description of the schism between Swing Lo and Bitte Orca exists in the album artwork for each disc. BO's sleeve showed two women, pale and distant, looking in disparate directions from one another, faces covered in splotches of color atop a white backdrop. It's perfectly indicative of the alien nature of the record, fascinating and alluring, but cold to the touch. SLM, on the other hand, introduces itself with a simple photo of three folks conversing in the woods. It's a work entirely more manual and communal than the band's preceding, "classic," which will likely garner them flack for having dumbed-down their oddity. Ignore it. Swing Lo Magellan is built to last, one winner flowing freely into another until the final couplet, the grandstanding, penultimate Unto Caesar, and the hushed, reflective Irresponsible Tune. It's epic yet intimate, ornate yet tangible, maddeningly addictive, and, simply put, a must-have.

Grade: A


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Matthew Dear: Beams (Release Date: 8-28-2012)

        Matthew Dear makes dance music both wholly familiar, and wildly alien. It's dark, crunchy, textured stuff, as liable to creep out the listener as it is to send their toes a' tapping. In this sense, Dear's work is a clear descendant of Nine Inch Nails, but that doesn't stop an avalanche of 80's synth-rock from pouring down into his art (the fact that Dear isn't signed onto James Murphy's DFA label is almost difficult to believe). While Dear's music has always bared his unmistakable stamp, the color of the ink has been subject to change. His 2007 release, Asa Breed, wore some of his weirdo ambitions, but in a much brighter, less twisted sense than his 2010 follow-up, Black City. Given this background, eager listeners could only expect two things from Beams: for Matthew Dear to sound like Matthew Dear, and for Matthew Dear to sound decidedly different than his last time out.

        Opener and initial leak Her Fantasy starts things out in a predictably unpredictable manner, mixing Breed's sunshine and expansiveness with City's claustrophobia and prominent use of warped vocals. It's the albums longest track, and yet one of its least eager to evolve, grooving along through subtly marked movements before finally floating off into the distance. This amalgamation of Breed's style and sound with that of City turns out to be particularly indicative of the album as a whole, discovering a sacred middle ground that allows Dear to keep the former album's accessibility, while still  letting the latter's freak-flag fly. Tunes like Fighting is Futile, Overtime, and album-highlight Earthforms show Dear as a master tailor, sewing his previous learnings together into something new and exciting.

        It would be easy to heap excessive praise onto Beams, its best material among the best of the year, but the snoozers here simply must be acknowledged. Headcage, a lackluster effort from Dear's similarly-titled EP from earlier this year, makes yet another appearance here, not a single tune-up to its name. By no means is it bad stuff, it just sticks out for being relatively unimaginative on an album full of home-runs. Same goes for both Get the Rhyme Right and Shake Me, a pair of take-'em-or-leave-'ems that manage to bog down the disc's second half considerably. No, Beams isn't the masterpiece of wonky dance music that its opening suggests, but that doesn't make its champion tracks any less indelible. Dear is, and always has been, a guy to get excited about, and his latest proves that he's only just getting started.

Grade: B

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dan Deacon: America (Release Date: 8-28-2012)

        If you've never heard Dan Deacon's 2009 LP Bromst, then you've never, in your life, heard anything quite like Bromst. One of the most singular albums that I've heard in the entirety of my days, Bromst is nearly impossible to explain with words, and even tougher to shoe-horn into an exact genre tag. Part electro-pop, part spaz-rock, part chipmunk-soul, and all dressed up in an intangibly etherial air, it proved a divisive offering, poison to some ears, and candy to others. Mine happened to find it among the best, most unique offerings of that year, wetting my pallet for his semi-belated follow-up, America.

        Deacon used the two years between his 2007 effort, Spider-Man of the Rings, and Bromst to bolster his sound, re-upping with higher-quality equipment, and finer recording techniques. No such leap exists between Bromst and America, a disc which inhabits the very same sound-world of its predecessor, and yet yields far less exciting results. Referring to any Deacon song as, 'over-stuffed,' is honestly more a statement of fact than opinion, but that doesn't excuse early tracks like Guilford Avenue Bridge or Crash Jam for not cleaning up their respective messes. Bromst's multi-layered entanglements always concealed mysteries that revealed themselves upon further listens. America's lowest points just feel crowded, and chaotic.

        Simply put, America is lacking volume-wise in the field of solid material. The disc is nearly 20 minutes shorter than the one that came before it, with many of the tracks sounding like under-cooked sketches of tunes we've already heard before. Even semi-winners, like lead-single True Thrush and Prettyboy, slip into the background far more readily than one might have hoped, and sound puny when slotted next to previous glories. The first half of the LP is almost aggressively OK, a symptom that America's four climactic tracks (the USA suite, if you will) finally do away with. For the smashing 21+ minutes that they occupy, America finally shows some vision, sequence, and thematic clarity. It's enough to make one wonder if the entire release was originally intended to be an EP consisting only of that collection, and was subsequently expanded with some obvious B-sides. Still, America is a joyous, techni-color affair, something that just about no one else could have come up with, but I can't help but knock it for so clearly failing to live up to the legacy of its forbearer.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Summer 2012 Playlist

1. Unbearable Why---Dr. Dog***      
        The kick-off to my notably delayed Summer 2012 Playlist (the heat's only getting started here in Portland, kids), UW is a piano-led ditty that blossoms into lovely harmonies that sound like mellow sunshine in your ears.
2. Asunder---Fang Island
        All right: no more sitting around. The lead single and best track off of FI's latest, Asunder is a celebration of rock 'n' roll rowdiness, drums pounding mercilessly, guitars jumping up and down in a sugar-fueled craze.
3. About to Die---Dirty Projectors
        Like the rest of Dirty Projectors' summer LP, About to Die finds a miraculous balance between the group's overt eccentricity, and cathcy-as-hell pop song craft.
4. Missing Pieces---Jack White***
         A bluesy, rocky sway squarely in the linage of White's best work with The White Stripes, tossed up into the stratosphere of awesomeness by the killer solos that make up its bridge.
5. Killer Dope---DJ Quik
         One of the most arrogant, unabashedly self-loving tracks in recent memory, Quik's tune grooves along on a smooth, summery beat, and concludes with one of the greatest shout-outs I've ever heard.
6. Monoliths---Lotus Plaza
         60's/70's rock, spruced up with all of the advantages of today, building into a glorious, cathartic tune that you never saw coming.
7. Wave Goodbye---Ty Segall Band***
        The biggest, filthiest, most epic punk track to grace my ears in all of 2012, Wave Goodbye is a positively sinister jam, becoming more expansive and more gnarly with each passing, ass-kicking second.
8. Mona Lisa---Atlas Sound
        And back down to miniature loveliness. Mona Lisa is a simple tune, wherein Bradford Cox refuses to ever raise his voice, but the song's glittering warmth cannot be denied.
9. (Druun)---DIIV
        An instrumental that serves both as a segue into the second half of the playlist, and smiling, nostalgic sound scape in which one could easily become lost.
10. The Mending of the Gown---Sunset Rubdown***
        Still the single bast song ever released by Spencer Krug's Sunset Rubdown outfit, Gown is relentlessly exuberant, flying through its semi-lengthy runtime on wings made of guitars and keyboards.
11. Heaven's on Fire---The Radio Dept.
        The Radio Dept. can be a bit polite for my taste, and while HOF probably says its please's and thank you's as well, its central piano melody is an ear worm that you won't mind having around in the least.
12. Muscle 'N Flo---Menomena***
        Menomena are at their best when they're at their most audacious, a fact that Muscle 'N Flo leaves no doubt about, throwing all manner of instrumentation into one monumental pop song.
13. It's Real---Real Estate
        From expansive and elaborate to small and intimate, It's Real is a tiny morsel of a tune that sounds about as much like Summer as music can, wonderful and inviting in every way imaginable.
14. Turn it Around---The Men
        The Men love nothing more than to rip right into it, and Open Your Heart opener Turn it Around does absolutely nothing to defy this trend. It's piss-and-vinager rocking out from first second to last.
15. Summer Holiday---Wild Nothing***
        If Summer Holiday had come out in the 80's, we'd probably all have it associated with some John Hughes movie which it inevitably soundtracked. As is, you'll have to make you own memories to this charming, glowing trip to yesteryear.
16. King of the Beach---Wavves
        Aaaaand back to rocking. KotB is a lively, sprinting pop-punk offering that can stand right next to the band's best, slamming on the gas while frontman Nathan Williams lays claim to the throne of sand.
17. World News---Local Natives
        The most warm-weather track on an album chuck-full of them, WN soars on the elating vocal harmonies that helped the band make its name, packaged with some pretty sublime axe-work to boot.
18. Rapping 2 U---Das Racist
        Rapping is 4:41 in length, only a matter of seconds deprived of sensational flow. The track possesses only three verses, but each is so terrific, you feel like you've had a whole hip hop meal by the time you're done.
19. Default---Django Django
        A barn-burner of a pop rock song, set to an irrepressible stomp, powered further by some of the most unique vocal pairings of 2012.
20. Meet Me in the Basement---Broken Social Scene***
        My Summer Playlist isn't looking to go down without a fight, which is why it places rock-until-the-walls-start-to-crumble instrumental Meet Me in the Basement, a rambunctious riot that's best heard at full-blast.

***Artist Pictured

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Passion Pit: Gossamer/Fang Island: Major (Release Dates: 7-24-2012)

        There's an enormous, monumental difference between listening to music with company, and listening to music alone, but you already know that. You've had a tune make your blood flow and your conversations run wild, all just to leave you cold when you replay it by your lonesome after the party. You've had a buddy talk up a track until their face turned blue, only to discover its magic for yourself when it pops up on shuffle months and moths later. It's a natural part of being a music fan: discovering what, exactly, you feel great about playing in front of your compatriots, and what you save for your private stash. As their mutual release dates imply, I've given myself ample time to waffle back and forth about the two discs in question, leading my mind towards this interesting schism in the universe of musical fan-dom. My face might turn red if I played a couple of Gossamer or Major tracks in front of a hot date, but that doesn't stop me from cranking them in my headphones.
       Fang Island is no stranger to this conundrum. While their self-titled debut was widely lauded by certain individuals (myself included), the praise couldn't protect the band from some measure of scornful laughter aimed at their heedlessly excitable sound. At first, Major seems a bit too aware of this, avoiding immediate comparison by opening with the Dan-Deacon-if-Dan-Deacon-was-really-really-sleepy piano ballad Kindergarden, a catchy-enough number that's entirely too chilled-out. The following tracks, aspiringly single-ready Sisterly, Seek it Out, Make Me, and Never Understand, trade in the band's devil-may-care energy for by-the-numbers pop rhetoric, mistaking more frequent lyrics, and more diligent adherence to verse-chorus-verse song structures with actual evolution. Truth be told, they're better than most as making poppy little sing-a-longs, but that won't be the reason behind any of their devoted fans giving Major a few spins, a fact of which the disc's second-half seems surprisingly aware.

        Asunder, the first tune to follow those aforementioned led-foots, plays out like you'd hoped all of Major would, positively ripping into a jam session that's perfectly in line with what their previous album so boldly promised. It's a blast, a celebration of rowdy-ness that continues with the extatic intrestmental Dooney Rock. The rest of the thing follows suit, only dipping into non-party-mode on closer Victorinian, a song both synonimous and superior to the album's opener.    
        Gossamer, on the other hand, is a much more thematically convoluted beast. Michael Angelakos, that sky-scrapping voice behind some of the indie-sphere's most unapologetically chipper entries of the last several years, is up to his old tricks here, but his lyrical concerns fly directly in the face of the glossy tunes in which they're encased. The protagonists of his album, be they as literal as himself, or as figurative as the workings of his imagination, are bogged down in severe problems with money and alcoholism. Take lead single and album opener Take a Walk, a stomping, wall-shaking number whose sonics barely allude to the emotional turmoil at hand, lines about taxes, foreclosures, cross-continent migration, and familial desintigration buried unter tidal-waves of synth.

        As many demons as Angelakos appears to be facing, his musical scope, while impressively well-developed, is microscopic in range, spilling sunshine and kittens all over tracks about fake friendships (Constant Conversations), abusive relationships (Cry Like a Ghost), and extreme problems with the bottle (I'll Be Alright). The man is trapped within his abilities, summarizing his whole conundrum perfectly by shouting, "I'm so self-loathing that it's hard for me to see/Reality from what I dream/And no one believes me/No, not a single thing." It's tragic stuff, a depressed-as-can-be Angelakos incarcerated inside his cotton candy world, the dichodomy making for a more fascinating, mysterious listen than one might have thought Passion Pit capable of crafting.
     Truth be told, both Major and Gossamer are mixed bags, wherein the best content soars and elates, while the lower-end stuff merely bores. Following the opposite trajectory of Fang Island's effort, PP's is mercilessly front-loaded, popping off all its best numbers as quickly as possible. Each disc can boast of  stellar, rambunctious 25 minutes of pounding power pop. It's the kind of stuff that plays on full blast in my headphones as I walk down the street on a sunny day, kept away from my smart-ass friends who might deride it. Think of it as a party for one.

Major Grade: B
Gossamer Grade: B

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Limited Release Date: 6-27-2012)

        'The end is nigh,' says the world of film, and who are we to disagree? Between global warming, world-wide fiscal disaster, and doomed politics, it's a wonder anyone in this country can fall asleep at night. Even if they are still getting some shut-eye, American film-makers are working 'round the clock to ensure that your nightmares make it up to the silver screen. Over the course of the last year, indie flicks have dreamed of destruction (Take Shelter, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), while blockbusters pivot on reflections of real-world events (The Dark Knight Rises) and employ a complete lack of trust in The Man (Prometheus) and The System (The Hunger Games). Even The Avengers, one of the most happy-go-lucky tent poles in recent memory, featured a government wholly willing to level New York with a nuclear missile. You've probably already witnessed the apocalypse take place on film a handful of times, but you've never seen anything like Beasts of the Southern Wild.

        Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a 6-year-old girl growing up in The Bathtub, a fictitious Delta-area community with a rich, insular culture, and Miller Light to go around. Hushpuppy's mom is long gone by the time we drop in, leaving the young girl in the care of her father (Dwight Henry), a tough-as-nails type who fixates on molding his daughter into survivor like himself. Their impoverished area is ripe with an intangible sort of magic, wherein all living things are connected, and everything that transpires is seen througkaleidoscopic eyes. The trials of the world, imagined in the form of ancient mythical boars by young Hushpuppy, soon decencsend upon them, putting the girl's warrior training to the test, necessitating that she fight for survival.

        There's no way that first-time director Benh Zeitlin didn't expect a backlash for being the face behind Beasts, and said backlash is upon us. A Caucasian of Jewish heritage from Queens, New York, Zeitlin's film could be seen as celebrating poverty, educational ignorance, and communal racial ambiguity, all things that one would imagine the film's creator wouldn't know much about. A resident of New Orleans since 2008, Zeitlin might not be as far outside of the culture he's attempting to replicate as many folks suggest, but he's close (not to mention the fact that his co-scribe and author of one-act that inspired the movie, Lucy Alibar, is something of a Southern Belle, and cute as a button). There were points in Beasts where I couldn't help but find the film a bit patronizing, all ugly faces, and dirty surfaces. It also stands as yet another entry in America's storied history of heaping praise on movies that show African-Americans toil through ill-fortune and filth, The Blind Side, Precious, and The Help serving as our annual entries for each of the last few years. Needless to say, I personally have some issues with the flick, which should really only serve to bolster its accomplishment when I describe it as hands down the best movie that 2012 has yet offered me.

        Yes, there are a few troubling aspects, but they are laughably over-powered by all of the wonderment up on screen, especially near its opening and conclusion. Wallis, who was five when she auditioned for the part, delivers a performance that's pretty easy to get hyperbolic about, almost undoubtedly one of the best ever from a thespian of her age. The subtle emotions that her face registers, the physicality of the role, and the growth of her character from first frame to last are all riveting, and fully-realized. Henry is nearly her equal, alternating between masculine rage and fatherly affection with complete believability. Both, like the rest of the cast, are amateur actors making their cinematic debuts, and the authenticity of their performances proves one of the film's greatest strengths. Others include Ben Richardson's unfathomably gorgeous cinematography, and Zeitlin and Dan Romer's I'm-Going-To-Make-Your-Heart-Swell-So-Much-You'll-Worry-It-Might-Explode score.

        The arguments presented by Beasts' detractors are a bit short-sighted. Here's a movie the celebrates diversity, perseverance, and community, and our knee-jerk reaction is to try to call Zeitlin a cultural tourist, as if his privilege has disallowed him any small understanding of the themes listed above. Yes, both he and Alibar are outsiders, but since when has heritage been a stipulation for creating art? Did Scorsese have any idea what it felt like to be a hulking, brooding boxing champion when he made Raging Bull? Do you think Michael Bay has ever seen a real gun when not on-set? These are two wildly talented young artists, a pair who built this film and its unique world view from the ground up on money they raised themselves; if you'd really rather have no racial diversity at the movies than have a whitey direct a film about the black experience, I can't help but think it's you who's being a touch regressive. Their creation is a thing of towering, staggering beauty, an ode to the joys and truths contained within life's most severe trials, and the most purely inspirational piece of cinema I've seen in a long, long time. If you can make it through the final 15 minutes with dry eyes, your tear-ducts are probably busted, or you're less human than Darth Vader. Don't listen to the haters: Beasts of the Southern Wild is a celebration of life itself, a joyous composition that ought to be seen by everyone, and then seen again.

Grade: A-