Monday, August 31, 2009

Saturday, August 29, 2009

In Case You've Been Living On Mars...

Almost two weeks back, four kids in their early twenties released a debut album which, by now, has drawn a good amount of critical acclaim and reminded everyone that simple pop music can still deliver the goods to alt. heads when the right band comes along.  Yada yada yada...

Look, the bottom line is that if you haven't heard The XX's self-titled debut by now, you're only hurting yourself.  It's one of the best albums of straight-up love songs that don't sound gay to come out in a while.  It's also one of the best debut albums of the year, right up there with Passion Pit and Pains of Being Pure at Heart.  The lyrics are simple and thoughtful, the band lets each song expand naturally and calmly, and the entire LP comes across as 100% sincere.  The ingredients needed in order to make a good album really are that simple, and it's amazing how many groups never realize that. Just goes to show you what a little bit of confusion combined with talent can do for a bunch of kids with instruments.  And the most remarkable aspect throughout each song is just how mature as a band they sound.  Well done XX.  I've listened to it a few times over by now, and here's a few of my favorite tracks off the album:

Heart Skipped a Beast

Basic Space


Thom Yorke Live Set from Last Month's Latitude Festival

So I found this link on this spanish site I check from time to time, and it's Thom Yorke's live set from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk this past July (which, judging by the lineup, had to have contained one heck of a mix of people in the crowd).  The sound is pretty solid and all in all it sounded like it was a great set, the highlights for me are the acoustic version of There There and the piano-driven version of Everything In Its Right Place.  And Harrowdown Hill sounds pretty fucking eerie as well, I might actually prefer this one to the studio version.  Enjoy.

01 - The Eraser 
02 - Arpeggi 
03 - Atoms for Peace 
04 - Harrowdown Hill 
05 - Follow Me Around 
06 - Everything in its Right Place 
07 - The Present Tense (Nuevo Tema) 
08 - Cymbal Rush 
09 - Black Swan 
10 - Videotape 
11 - There There 
12 - True Love Waits

Friday, August 28, 2009

Oldies but Goodies: The Replacements - Let It Be

My post earlier this week about the similarities that exist between Paul Westerberg and Jay Reatard got me thinking.  The Replacements have become quite possibly the most influential forgotten band in the context of the general younger public.  Think about it; when do you ever go into a bar, party, sporting event...etc, and hear a Replacements song playing?  Even worse, you could probably play their biggest tracks for random people on the street under 30, and maybe 2 out of every 10 would be able to pinpoint them as the artist.  And they're probably one of the top-ten bands of the 80's.

Let It Be is my favorite Replacements album and in my opinion, their best.  I'm sure plenty would disagree, but it's on Let It Be that you hear their real influence.  Paul Westerberg and Co beautifully blend Beatles-esque pop rock with the punk sound that they'd originated with.  Here's two tracks; the opener, I Will Dare, and Unsatisfied.  Both are nothing short of classics.  I can't recommend the rest of the album highly enough.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall


The term "proper LP" annoys me.  I have no idea why.  I'm as much a fan of a great album as the next guy.  But when you've been working as long and as hard as Jay Reatard has, to me, it always seems to diminish the artist's work that he's done previously leading up to it.  Reatard's been killing it for quite some time now, and on a pretty kick-ass level.  The fact that this his first actual "album" is great and all, but it's not the dude's first rodeo.  

All things considered, it's on Watch Me Fall that Reatard takes the reigns and keeps the sound we all know by now, channeling his own songwriting with a sonic burst of instrumentation that would make any member of The Replacements proud.  And make no mistake about it, there's some real stand-out tracks here, ones that truly make you believe that there's some great things on the horizon for Reatard if he chooses to go in that direction.  

Before I Was Caught follows the intro track, and it's a solid song to get things moving for the rest of the album.   It almost seems like Reatard's telling all of us what his life would be like if he wasn't recording an actual album at this point, and if that's even a good thing.  "I'm laying alone and bed....I try to squeeze out a single thought/But than I fall, I fall asleep/and dream about before I was caught."  Hell, the album title is a pretty obvious invitation to the fact that he knew having to record this was just a matter of time.

The intro to to Can't Do It Anymore sounds like something off a Deep Purple album before it dives right into the tempo that we're already accustomed by now.  It gives way to one hell of a scorcher in Faking It, where Reatard takes us through a sub-2 minute ass kicker.  And that leads us into I'm Watching You.  It's a song about dating a chick that simply isn't that great, but acts like she is and attempts to treat you like dirt before you realize that she's out of her fucking mind; and it's a great song.  "I'm watching you, and all the things you do/To me, you see, you never were too cool/To me, you see, I always play the fool for you."  It's followed up by another great track, Wounded, where Reatard picks things back up, but pays enough mind to the previous track to not do it too much.  The whole album is sequenced perfectly, but it really stands out in these two tracks back to back.

Later on, My Reality gives us a possible glimpse of what he's aiming for in the future.  It has some simple layering behind a great riff, with an echoed chorus in front of a basic drum roll that really sounds fantastic.  I don't know if Reatard was trying to channel Paul Westerberg or not throughout a lot of this album, but he definitely does, and it definitely works.  

The album ends with, what I personally believe, Reatard's greatest track as an artist yet.  There Is No Sun has a great oldies-esque drum beat behind it, with a guitar riff to match.  "The only thing you'll remember/Is you'll only whisper to me."  It ends with some distortion and a violin taking us away from the track, which leaves you with complete satisfaction.  It really is just a beautiful song and a masterful way to close out a great full-length debut, and it's almost as if Reatard's starting to realize his own potential after figuring it out over the first 11 tracks.  

There's some minor flaws here and there.  Things do get repetitive time to time, and Reatard's bluntness can get a tad bland sometimes.  Especially since it's so obvious how talented the guy is musically by listening to something like this.  It just feels like he has something so much greater in him than just a regular alternative/punk record.  Sometimes you come across an album that makes you just think; "I wonder what this guy could put out if he really put it all together one day."  This is one of those albums.  The closing track, due to how good it is, only reinforces this belief.

But that's what's so awesome about listening to Reatard.  He simply doesn't give a shit, and maybe that's what rock needs right now.  Whenever I'm done listening to his music, I always feel like smoking cigarettes and telling some random person to fuck off.  And I don't even smoke.  One thing's for sure, you won't be hearing him on your larger radio stations any time soon, or seeing any of these tracks in one of HBO's dramatic commercials where they're advertising all their shows with some obscure track from a semi-popular band.  I guess that, for now, we should just be happy that minds like his exist out there.  The ones that aren't afraid to just pick up a guitar and say "let's do this," regardless of whether it's for a LP or not.  And  I think Reatard's OK with being that type of guy right now; I sure as hell know I am.

Grade - A-

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Radiohead - Kid A (Deluxe Edition)

I was 19 years old when Kid A came out.  I hadn't made it past my freshman year of college (at that point at least), and didn't return to school in favor of taking some random temp job in data entry in the financial district in Manhattan.  I still remember heading over to the mall at South Street Seaport Mall the day it was released on CD to buy it on lunch.  I wasn't a diehard Radiohead fan at this point, I really, really liked The Bends a lot and certainly loved OK Computer as much as the next alternative junkie, but I can't say that I ever imagined myself caring about them as much as I do now at this point in my life.

Getting back to work, I popped the CD into my computer, plugged my headphones in, and listened away as I plugged away at tedious computer work.  I'm fairly certain I skipped over a few tracks after hearing the first few seconds, then got to The National Anthem, listened, loved it, and skipped ahead again straight to Optimistic.

Then I distinctly remember something weird happening; Idioteque came on after Optimistic, and I grabbed the CD case again, and just stared at it through the entire song.  WTF was I listening to?  No fucking way was this Radiohead.  But it was.  It was Radiohead, and this was how they were going to be proceeding with music from this point on.  

And that was that.  My life hasn't been the same since, at least from a musical standpoint.  Over the past 9 years, I've just flat-out submitted myself to this album.  It's the band's finest work and the best album of the decade.  If I had to make a list of the greatest rock albums ever, I'd have it in my top 5.  So many people would disagree and too many are so quick to dismiss it as a failed electronic attempt, but you really can't argue with how the band's direction post-Kid A has entrenched their position as the one and only alternative supergroup who still maintains credibility amongst so many pretentious indie-heads and the mainstream at the same time.

But that's what's great about Kid A.  It means something different to everyone else.  Literally, everyone. Even friends of mine with great musical tastes, who've never come around on it, can point to it and explain why Kid A makes them appreciate OK Computer that much more.  Chuck Klosterman dedicated an entire fucking chapter of a book towards analyzing its similarities to 9/11.

To me though, Kid A is simply an album about the difficulties of making an album.  Even more so, making an album after making an album like OK Computer.  You can hear it in Thom Yorke's indiscernible voice on the second (album-titled) track: "I slipped away/I slipped away on a little white lie...We've got heads on sticks/You've got ventriloquists." The fact that Yorke makes his voice so hard to make out throughout this giant middle finger to fans expecting the same or record companies demanding OK part deux is something I've come to appreciate so much more over the years.  The hidden track at the end conveys the same message.  It's almost like Yorke and the boys are saying to everyone: "Here's a hidden track, it sounds nothing like music, fuck you."  I just love that.

Quoting Optimistic to reinforce this opinion is almost too easy.  The entire chorus is a message from Yorke's girlfriend as a source of encouragement towards his struggles in getting the damn album done ("You can try the best you can,/you can try the best you can/the best you can is always good enough).  It's also one of Phil Selway's finest moments of a drummer as well, with the backbeat remaining constant and soft in the background, giving Greenwood and Ed O'Brien room to expand with their sounds, until he just totally takes over with a brilliant sequence of drum-rolls to take the song into that beautifully crazed jazz ending.

The rest of the album takes us in the same direction, from the ambience of Treefingers to the queazy,  roller-coaster-like nausea that In Limbo causes anyone who's listening with a good pair of  headphones.  Peaking with Idioteque, a song that Pitchfork just named a top 10 track for the decade and rightfully so.  It's Kid A's highlight, and, as a single track, is Radiohead's magnum opus.  It takes us right into Morning Bell, where Yorke sings: "The lights are on but nobody's home/Nobody wants to be a slave/Walking, walking, walking, walking."  By extolling how boxed in the band feels by what The Bends and OK Computer made them throughout the 90's, they're in fact breaking free from those albums.

And that's what's so fucking beautiful about the entire record.  As people, we're taught that true vindication of self only comes through breaking through your own personal barriers.  Kid A teaches us that the same stigma holds true for bands, and music as a whole.  Alternative music doesn't have to be boxed in by the instrumental limitations of grunge.  It can expand and command an entire spectrum of genres and experimentation.  

The live bonus tracks here come through as you'd expect.  A great version of True Love Waits (one of the group's most underrated songs lyrically), BBC recordings, several great tracks from a session at Canal+ Studios in Paris, and for the Idioteque nuts, there's a version from that studio and also a BBC version.  As far as I'm concerned, the more versions of Idioteque I get to hear, the better.  All in all, you get 13 new live versions of tracks we've already grown to love.  For fans, these tracks are a must hear.  There's obviously no need to buy the entire album again, it hasn't been remastered or anything, and the bonus tracks can be individually purchased anyways.  Though I suspect completists will probably do so anyways. 

In the end, plenty of people will voice their displeasure towards this album as long as rock music lives on.  And that's cool, because unlike people who try to hate Nevermind nowadays, Kid A is at least understandable to hate.  It's easy to dislike music that takes this much effort to listen to.  It's why you don't hear Animal Collective playing at your local bar, or your average house party blasting Portishead.  Because albums like this put you in a bottle, shake you up for for 50 minutes, and when they pour you back out, you're never the same again; simply put, music like that isn't always easy for everyone to entrench themselves in.  

Since I bought this album that day in Manhattan, I've gone back to school, gotten a bachelors degree from Rutgers, moved several times, gone through several girlfriends, moved to Baltimore, gotten a Masters degree, and I'm currently applying for PhD programs.  Go figure.  And I still have no idea where my life is headed.  In the end, Kid A has enough proponents to help its greatness live on in the hearts and minds in those of us who've truly come to love this album for what it is; a reflection of ourselves as the world keeps changing, for ourselves and for each other, and how nobody really knows just how to handle it.

Grade: A+