22 January 2007

Twenty-seven


LCD SoundsystemLCD Soundsystem (Rough Trade)

A confession: I like to write about albums that do not get major press. This is partly due to a slightly obscurist tendency to which I will gladly cop, but also because what I write is unaffected by what others have written before me. Therefore when writing on an album such as this, or Arular, I find my review is partly an expression of my opinion and partly a response to other, existing, opinion.

Such a situation is especially the case with the eponymous debut full length from James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem; because I could not like the album as much as (for example) The Wire does, it might seem like I have negative affect for either the album or the magazine, when neither is the case.

I will say that the album suffers from the omission of excellent 2002 single ‘Losing My Edge’, a song of such lyrical charm and dynamic structure that it is one of my very favourite of this admittedly inchoate decade. Nevertheless, it is an epic monologue about the ground being lost by the concept of ‘legitimacy’ in music, as ‘being there’ carries with it less weight at a time when Youtube and Soulseek enable everybody to ‘be there’ in essence. It’s that age old problem of being into something for ages that is now freely available that we have all encountered at various points, and to varying degrees. Anyway, it’s moot because it’s a separate single.

A single included on the album, however, is ‘Tribulations’ which, while slight in comparison to ‘Losing My Edge’, is a catchy pop sing with a cool beat and predictably clear, busy-but-uncluttered production. The pop hit of the album is the opening ‘Daft Punk is Playing at My House’ which is lesser still, and rather flat to kick off an album, but is certainly adequate.

Perhaps a more fitting start to the album would have been the short, snappy punk rock ‘Movement’. While many punk rock bands of the last decade have been described as having ‘snotty’ vocalists, LCD super-brain James Murphy actually does sound like his nose is blocked in the verse. That is only temporary, and the music explodes into action for the majority of the songs three minutes.

(I apologise for this current batch of reviews being little more than a track-by-track rundown, but that seems to be a coincidence based on the nature of these albums being slightly hard for me to get a more measured handle on than I would like. Actually organising these lists is far simpler than justifying them, because the former allows the writer to rationalise a decision as ‘well, I like this record more than that one’. Writing up the list requires a tad more thought. If I was better at psychology I would make some reference to the difference between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.)

‘Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up’ is interesting, in that it represents a strange breed of song or, more pertinently, my strange method of appreciation. I do not like the Beatles. This statement does not come from the aforementioned obscurism, but rather the fact I just don’t like their songs that much. What I do like a lot of, weirdly, is music said to be Beatles-influenced, or ‘Beatlesy’. I like power pop groups, The Apples in Stereo, Beulah et al. I even like when non-Beatles artists cover their songs (most exemplified by Al Green’s wonderful version of ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’). Anyway, this is a song I would describe as ‘Beatlesy’ and like the similar ‘I’m so Tired’ by Fugazi and Soundgarden's 'Blow Up the Outside World' I dig it greatly.

The song itself is aptly slow and lazy, slightly dreamy in performance, and is a delightful ditty that bridges between the more active ‘Movement’ and ‘On Repeat’ very effectively. Perhaps too effectively, as I find the latter overlong and under-involving. Then again, I feel I am cheating slightly in rating such a song because it sounds made for the club context and as a result listening to it on headphones at home seems not to be optimum. Then again, this isn’t a white label 12”; the song is on an album designed for home consumption, so maybe I am right after all. ‘Thrills’ is more of the same, but thankfully half the length and better for it.

Last song ‘Great Release’ is excellent stuff. In fact, what with this and ‘Never as Tired…’ being the biggest artistic successes in terms of listening to LCD in the home, perhaps Murphy and Goldsworthy would do well to pursue the more gentle, emotional side of their music, rather than the overwhelmingly beat-driven. The slow pace of the vocal and epic stature of the songs structure remind me of Underworld, albeit modernised and dropping the straight house beat. The build is gradual (I didn’t notice it pricking up my ears until about halfway through the six minutes), and the climax is a gathering of sound that gains almost ominously in momentum, but stops before there might be any listener discomfort – this is no 1999 Mogwai. Oddly, both these songs end when the song just dies away and sounds are heard of walking off or turning things off. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

While I may seem harsh on the album, that’s likely a symptom of my decision to analyse in (something resembling) detail; it is consistently very good, and never really feels like it is dragging. I see where publications are coming from in rating it almost uniformly top 10, but I think 2005 was too competitive for that to ring true with me. It is worth mentioning that CD copies of the album still come bundled with a ‘bonus’ disc of LCD singles, including the mighty ‘Losing My Edge’ (another example of the diminution of ‘being there back in the day’). If you want to consider that a part of the album, then subtract about four from the current position.

Twenty-eight


Jackson And His Computer BandSmash (Warp)

I was initially turned off this album because of the first song. Not that it was a bad first song, but rather because I’m sure it’s from an advert. And not a particularly good one either; I picture a long camera shot with suited people walking into glass-fronted office buildings. Glass buildings, while a Warp artist plays. It’s like a hyper-modernist vision of the future. In 1995. Damn, between this and the last Forrest review, you would be forgiven for thinking I dislike Warp Records or something. I don’t. In fact, they’re really good (I got three 12”s off them last week). It’s just a coincidence.

Anyway, I reckon the opening track, ‘Utopia’, is from an ad. It is a shame that’s my primary association for it, because the track itself is brilliant. All undulating electronic bass sounds, softened Autechre scrape-drums and what I’m going to call Prefuse Vocal Chopping (even though it’s essentially the kind of cutting up people have been doing since the days of tapes and turntables), you do understand why it got picked up for an ad. I’ve just done a bit of ‘research’, and it turns out the song is from an O2 advert. OK, no office workers, but it’s got a bubble bouncing over skyscrapers.

What makes this album stand out from the majority of Warp releases since, ooh, about 1997 or so, is the sense of fun. And I don’t mean that aforementioned Aphexpusher sarcastic (again, not a diss. One of those records I got was Squarepusher. Big Loada, to be precise) pranky ‘fun’, but actual fun. The album is enjoyable to listen to, as opposed to Confield’s maths lecturing, Drukqs’s needle in a haystack search for gold or just the nerve ending-shatteringly mediocre Maximo Park.

Back to ‘Utopia’, anyway. I was about to write something to the smarmy effect of it being the lesser ‘Utopia’ of this decade – the other being the Goldfrapp entry. But as I write – and listen – my belief in that sentiment erodes. There was, rather excitingly, a moment of clarity involved. While the majority of the song is concerned with, as I mentioned, Prefuse Vocal Chopping (PVC? Hey…), there appears a ray of divine light, peering through the glitchtronic clouds and, as it retreats back into the heavens as the song ends, it takes me with it, into the domain of electronic bliss. And why? Because that ray of light is the full vocal line that slips into the song un-chopped.

‘Have you really thought about Utopia’ sneaks through, after initial production attempts to stifle it. And the density of the track clears for a second in a smooth, harmonised ‘ooooh…’ I Google and find myriad references to this one line, too, so it turns out I’m not special after all. Interestingly, what I had thought was an old, hidden treasure of a sample was actually Jackson’s mother, Paula Moore. Something new every day.

While ‘Rock On’ is more PVC-a-go go, something like ‘Minidoux’ sounds like Mario Bros (NES version) played on a Rhodes. It’s a delightful little tune that leads straight into ‘Oh Boy’, a kiddie-voice monologue set to military drumming and synths that sound like a Come to Daddy b-side. And I love that EP. What is interesting to me is that this batch of songs, including the following ‘TV Dogs’ flow sonically free of any PVC-style restrictions. Dare I say they are unbound from rhythmic bondage? Gone is the stop-start and the Max Headroomism, replaced by rolling rhythms, rippling melody, and verse!

It seems, therefore, that such difference is totally intentional. Jackson obviously pays a lot of attention to detail in the recording and arrangement of each track, so it stands to reason the same level of care would be afforded the sequencing of the album. ‘Utopia’ and the (ironically christened, perhaps) ‘Rock On’ are almost in aural straitjacket, by the time we get to ‘Hard Tits’, the music is flowing like disco-flavoured water.

The album really picks up after the halfway point, with ‘Teen Beat Ocean’; nods to the Crayola explosion of a Tigerbeat6 aside, this song really sounds like nothing else I hear these days. There are hints of retro about the wobbly synth sounds (as if you half expect to be asked by a man not to push him, for he is close to the edge – we’d all rather he not lose his head), but the hard beats and dense layering anchor it firmly in the now. My idea about the albums concept being the gradual freedom of the music from rhythmic shackles takes a hit with ‘Tropical Metal’ stuttering onto the scene. It wasn’t such a great theory anyway. It’s a fun sort of stuttering; less like the music is being emergency stopped than it does so of its own volition. It’s like the beat is struggling to breathe while randomness happens all around it.

‘Headache’ is more in the stop-start vein, and a tad fittingly named, so I don’t know what’s going on any more. ‘Fast Life’, conversely, is a lovely little song. Chopped up string samples and female vocals combined with spoken word and disco-tinged basslines makes me a happy little throughsilver. Much like that island of song earlier in the album, the change of pace is welcome, but also serves to highlight the quality of what preceded, if that makes any sense; retro-active freshening. Maybe it takes the free flowing sounds to provide an Other against which the PVC stuff can be compared. Two sides of the same coin existing in symbiosis because, without one, the other shines less brightly.

Actually, I was walking through the railway station today when ‘Arpeggio’ came on. I enjoyed one of those moments when you become far cooler than everyone else in there by virtue of what’s pouring into your ears at that point in time. My walk changed, I blew the mind of the ticket checker with my audacious presentation of my ticket (not really, but it’s the sort of thing Jez from Peep Show might have thought), and I was well and truly feeling the love. Maybe that should be my new mode of listening: traipsing round Leeds station. Maybe not.

In fact, the listening experience got even better when I was walking home from the station. On came ‘Cold Herds Travel’ by Birchville Cat Motel, and its gradually-building drone blew my mind. That said, some of the accessory sounds made me a little paranoid, as though a demonic pram was rattling along behind me. I don’t actually think it was, in hindsight. Anyway, Smash is a quality album, but I am more excited by the prospect of this young talent growing, and delivering better records, in the very near future.

POSTSCRIPT: Woebot reviewed this album when it was newer. Read it, because it's really good.

11 January 2007

Twenty-nine


Asa-Chang and JunrayMinna no Junray (Sony)

Minna no Junray is a very strange album, and one that seems not to have been released outside Koichi Asakura’s (the eponymous Asa-Chang) native Japan. Because I am feeling cynical, I will attribute that to the fact that the fun, silly and downright bizarre Minna no Junray would be somewhat at odds with the more ‘serious’ image they seem to have been given over here, both by media and label.

Let’s break it down for a minute: the group’s UK label is Leaf (aside: they are based in Leeds. How interesting), home to the rather serious, minimalist sounds of Susumu Yokota, Eardrum, Murcof, 310 and Colleen. Asa-Chang and Junray’s first single (and gorgeous video) was the excellent ‘Hana’, a slo-mo synchronisation of word and tabla undergoing rhythmic overload while string samples yawn in a melancholic way in the background. Beautiful, but it seemed very serious.

Meanwhile, this album betrays such an image instantly with its cartoony sleeve (sadly, due to the combination of the expense of importing and your writer’s lack of funds, this is download-only for the moment). Compare and contrast. Musically, ‘Parlor’ kicks off with what sounds like cash registers and Japanese scatting, before the meat of the track – mock-brass interplay – kicks in. This song maintains that key Asa-Chang musical theme of marrying the old and the new. In an echo of ‘Hana’s juxtaposition of tabla and computer (while Asa-Chang plays tabla, the group’s U-Zhaan is a classically trained master of the instrument. The electronics are handled by the mysterious Hidehiko Ureyama) the brass here is alternately accompanied, battled and homogenised, with electronic beats, glitches etc.

I could swear that Asa-Chang is requesting ‘come take me away’ in ‘Senaka’, the song that suggested to me that perhaps he is the Japanese Timbaland. Not in mainstream exposure or overt poppiness (yet), but there is something about the melding of the percussion (think ‘Get Ur Freak On’) with ultra-modern production techniques and quality songwriting that clicks in my head. I think it was the ‘this is Intelligent Dance Music’ aesthetic of their Leaf releases that prevented me from getting the scent, and only this release that opened my eyes to the connection. I don’t see Asakura hitting the gym and working with Nelly Furtado any time soon (though he is a touring percussionist with various J-pop acts), but the similarities are there.

‘Tsuginepu to Ittemita (Minna no Rappa Hen)’ returns to both the cartoony mini-orchestra of ‘Parlor’ and the female-vocal-as-percussion, which provide an interesting meeting of the earnest ‘Hana’ and bizarro current aesthetic. As can be expected, the rhythms begin normally enough, but get put through the grinder at various points, and I dare anyone to air-tabla to it. If, indeed, anybody air-tablas to anything. After the organic respite of the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Kana (Chouhen)’, albeit subjected to the process of tabla beatmatch we will now refer to as ‘being Asa-Changed’, the listener next faces the utter dementia that is ‘Hinode March’.

I say ‘utter dementia’ because it is just too much. An old man’s voice sings a likeable enough melody that gets messed with by a touch of tape-warp vibrato while, deep in the mix, an electronic hoe-down goes on. For over six minutes. And if that does not sound like too long, let me assure you that just the other night I listened to the song on headphones and I was driven straight through frustration, into anger. And yet there was that sick determination to make it to the end.

(Relative) sanity is restored with ‘Madame Blue’, which slides suddenly from an accordionist playing in a nineteenth century party, while Chichikov attempts to endear himself to the nobs of a Russian provincial capital, to solitary low key sax backing a woman saying something in rhythm (that reminds me a tad of the Lappetites’ brilliant ‘Tzungentwist’. Or maybe a surrealist anime re-imagining of the later work of Lydia Lunch). The track turns all Neutral Milk Hotel to close, as the woodwind breaks out and I start fantasising about how amazing it would be if Asa-Chang collaborated with celebrated recluse/genius, Jeff Mangum. (For those counting, there are two notables in independent music today; the other is Josh T. Pearson, of Lift To Experience non-fame.) And for those worried that this is a lot of drastic changes for one song, you will appreciate that it is near ten minutes in length.

‘Senaka’ returns, this time with female vocal, and strangely reminiscent of the lovely ‘Lazy Lagoon’ single by Anjali. It is reminiscent in no real manner other than, when I listen to this, I am reminded of that. The mood is similarly pleasant, what Poe might have referred to as an ‘opium dream’ or some such, as you just want to listen to it while in a hot bath while the dreamy vocals and string samples wash over you. Along with the Matey. Sorry, posh bath crystals.

I suppose that by this point Asa-Chang must feel his listeners have recovered sufficiently from the emotional scarring of ‘Hinode March’ (and let me clarify: there is no recovery from that), as he finishes with ‘Kutu #4’. A mix of Asa-Changed swannee whistle and steel drum, the listener is saved from similar trauma by the considerate brevity of the song. Yes, this album is very good. However, like the greatest Shigeru Miyamoto creations (the man wot dun Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong), Minna no Junray manages to both astound and frustrate.
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