31 December 2009

Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live

I had hoped to have my traditional year-end post up by now, but I have been more long-winded than usual, and will have to up it in the next day or so. Apols! In the meantime, here's some Tom Waits for y'all. See you in the one-oh!

ANTI- (2009)


If I didn't know better, I'd sense that something was winding down a tad. Glitter and Doom, as the title implies, is a live album, three years after triple-disc closet-cleaning collection, Orphans. He has released two albums of all-new music in the last decade. Rather than suggesting any kind of mercenary, contractual-obligation fulfilling, behaviour, this seems more to be putting a career's affairs in order. Tom Waits isn't getting any younger. So it stands to reason that he'd want to cross the 'T's and dot the 'I's of a career that justifies such careful housekeeping. A ghoulish thought, admittedly, but a logical one nonetheless.

As Waits grows older – estimates suggest he is now over ten thousand years of age – he sounds more and more like an incredibly charismatic death metal vocalist. Take 'Get Behind the Mule', introduced as a song 'about the very first vehicle': the music sounds rather like the bins in Tin Pan Alley receiving a kicking, and Waits expels demonic noises like he's about to join prime Obituary. It's a fantastic performance, and but one of many dimensions to Waits. What is also clear from this song is Waits' rare ability, as a white man, to invoke the blues and not have it sound infinitely smug.

Indeed, Waits seems intent on discovering whether it is possible to have too much of a good thing: Glitter and Doom Live is long. Not necessarily longer than a great many records in the CD age, but it involves a level of investment; whether emotion, intellect or just sheer attention; that can fatigue. Whether too long or not, this record is most definitely a good thing. Waits is one of those performers both sufficiently compelling and veteran to be able to omit some real classics and not suffer.

We have plenty of gold to mine. In the first batch of songs, the curmudgeonly, bludgeoning, 'Singapore' and the battered, stoical melancholy of 'Dirt in the Ground'. Later on, the delightful 'I'll Shoot the Moon', a song whose magnificence remains unbesmirched as your reviewer has not heard the Scarlett Johansson cover. Not much in the way of singles” Rod Stewart fans will have to do without 'Downtown Train'; likewise, The Wire fans and 'Down in the Hole'. A personal absence is 1983's utterly masterful 'In the Neighbourhood', a song whose lyrical and musical depth would qualify it for American national anthem, in a perfect alternate reality.

In actual reality, we are distracted by the carny likes of Heath Ledger's Joker starring in an aural Tim Burton film, in 'Circus'. Or the ennui-drenched warning of 'Fannin Street'. Having not heard the Alice or Blood Money albums, 'The Part You Throw Away' was a pleasant surprise as it lurched out of the speakers like a misunderstood vagabond. And I suppose that's the beauty of Tom Waits: there is always something of his that you haven't heard, and it takes a collection such as this to shed some light on those unlit corners of his nocturnal world.

As if to press home the point that loose ends are being tied up, Glitter and Doom contains a bonus disc of Waits' on-stage banter, anecdotes and digressions. It's a diverting enough way to spend one's time, though no more essential than the similar Fugazi mp3 that's currently doing the rounds, and certainly not on the level of, say, the infamous Buddy Rich tapes. The whole is the point, though. This is a snapshot of a truly one-of-a-kind performer in full swing. It's hard to imagine anyone really disliking the man; while he's been doing this for decades, his act never gets old.

30 December 2009

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind

Domino Recording Co. (2009)

(A FACT presentation)

Here's an EP from low-key Maryland beat combo, the Animal Collective. They released a fine little album way back at the start of this year, Merriweather Post Pavilion, that could really have done with a bit more publicity. Perhaps it was just released at the wrong time: AC had written it as a summer album, whose modern-day Beach Boys primary-colour harmonies could have danced and pranced in verdant fields, drenched in the balmy golden sun of the season of love and picnics. As it was, the record lurched into the shops during an especially bleak January: a shame, as songs like 'My Girls' could really have developed a following, under the right circumstances.

Animal Collective are all too aware of seasonal context, so they have been careful to ensure Fall Be Kind (a pun on the daylight savings 'spring ahead, fall behind' mantra) comes out as close to Autumn, or 'fall', as is allowed by the vagaries of 'release windows' and 'schedules'. It is somewhat amusing that such a summery band is releasing all of its recent new music during the time of perpetual gloaming, but here we are. It brings a ray of light into our murky lives, at least.

Prominently featuring what sound suspiciously like pan-pipes is opener 'Graze'. While jarring, they're no more wacky than the tadpole chorus of MPP's equivalent, 'In the Flowers', so it's all good. Besides, the slight irritation of these hectic pipes is more than offset by the incredibly strong vocal melody. Simon Reynolds mentioned this year that Animal Collective are a 'middlebrow' act; accessible enough to blow up, but sufficiently experimental to retain their alternative cache (to admittedly CliffsNotes Reynolds' theory a tad). This writer doesn't entirely agree: MPP was indeed intelligently produced and arranged, but the vocal dominance on that record suggested pure, wonderful, pop.

Fall Be Kind is massively poppy once more, but again treads a theoretical tightrope. 'Graze's aforementioned lead vocal performance is narrative, with short phrasing, before soaring in spots, almost as though it was on Broadway. It is this kind of detail that suggests not just a fondness, but an intellectual approach, toward pop music craft that recalls Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson's 1982 albums, Imperial Bedroom and Night and Day. But then you get a song like the serene, life-affirming, 'What Would I Want? Sky'. It's a song of two halves, as the sweet opium fog of the opening couple of minutes clears, leaving a vocal hook-as-sample, which runs for the duration, while seemingly everything goes on around it. And not for the first time this year, AC remind your reviewer of Taja Sevelle on 'Love is Contagious'. I think it's the exuberant way the vocals pelt out any high notes, allied with that super-American enunciation.

It's probable, though, that mine are ears used to music that deviated from the norm, that 'poppy' does not necessarily equate to 'pop'. From the title to the subdued first half, 'What Would I Want? Sky' would realistically be described as weird by anyone outside the bubble of the internet music fan, a situation compounded by the next song. 'Bleed' is similar in mood and pace to the previous track's opening, but without the ecstatic pay-off. It's the equivalent to MPP's interval track, 'Daily Routine'. It's unclear whether Fall Be Kind is intended to represent a microcosm of the album, perhaps in response to the criticism that MPP was akin to a sugar overdose, but the parallel is there.

The difference comes in the closing brace of songs. 'On a Highway' and 'I Think I Can', rather than provide the shot of adrenaline of tribal-Underworld 'Lion in a Coma' or 'Brother Sport's anthemic car alarm rush, maintain the contemplative mood. But they're perfectly fine songs, and better to reflect the sombre tone of another year's death, than a big, thrilling, finale would achieve. This EP represents a firming-up of Animal Collective's position on their career trajectory. The mess of unfocused ideas that characterised their past is now more distant a memory; strength of song, streamlined in delivery, seems now to be the modus operandi. They still throw curveballs for the existing fans who wonder how tribal introspection sits, theoretically, with nods to Rihanna's 'Umbrella', during the record's semi-epic conclusion. But then, maybe they're not curveballs. Maybe neither the nod to Rihanna nor the curious structure are calculated: it's just Animal Collective doing what they do. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see where they go now something resembling a concrete aesthetic, and a respectable level of media attention, have been attained. How they would handle either an emergence into the pop light or retreat into the comfortable wilderness would be intriguing; one just hopes this notoriously eclectic group haven't reached a plateau.

29 December 2009

Iron Man

Dir: Jon Favreau, 2008

So it turns out there is now a trailer for Iron Man II, due in Summer 2010. Here it is! Exciting innit. The Wrestler's in it and everything. Given how wall-hurlingly thrilling the trailer was, while watching it I temporarily forgot one small detail: I hadn't seen the original!

So I watched the original this avo.

And eeeh. I've heard people say it's variously the best Marvel film ever, the best comic book film ever, better than The Dark Knight (which the second point would kinda imply, but give me a break. I've just got back from holiday) etc. Stakes, as De La Soul would say, was high. Have to admit before I go any further that I was a tad sceptical, largely due to aforementioned hype. I know it goes against intellectual thinking, but I really liked The Dark Knight. Saw it at IMAX and the lot. Anyway, Downey and Favreau are a decent combination, so why not. Swingers was great, for a film that wasn't really about anything.

Iron Man though. Good film, I have to admit. And it actually gave me some food for thought. But for now, let's look at the comic book/action film stuff. I'm not in any way a veteran of the Iron Man comics (I did like the cartoon a lot though. Waiting for Hypnotia to feature in IM III), so I don't know how true-to-print the origin story was. Probably not very, as this one involved an oh-so zeitgeist-capturing Middle Eastern terrrst organisation being all hard to pin down, releasing videos of hostages and hunkering down in complex cave systems. Sadly no Bin Laden beards, but I suppose that would have been too on the nose. Or chin. Sorry. Downey Jr. was charming and charismatic as the titular Man, and put over the peril of the various situations in which he found himself. The bloke who saved his life in the caves was a bit of a sad loss, but he was only a plot device anyway. And besides, he looked vaguely Middle Eastern so was obviously more concerned about the afterlife than the present life. Obviously.

This actually got me to thinking. Once Stark becomes Iron Man (and with no Ghostface Killah on the soundtrack, to my memory, and my disappointment), he's shook at the knowledge of his company's weapons being used on innocents, and heads over to a fictional war-torn city to intervene. A young family is in hysteric tears as their father/husband is about to be executed by the no-goodniks. Just in time, Iron Man makes the save, annihilating the terrorists and saving all innocents. He goes about it in massively cathartic style, and it's actually a lovely scene. Made me wish there was someone to intervene in such a way in numerous countries today. But then, in the context of this film, that wouldn't happen. He'd be fine for knacking your Talibans, Basij and various independent organisations, but the most damage this decade has been meted out by the war machine (hmmm) that was brought into being by the Western world. And Tony Stark, who the film tells us over and over again is a supermassive patriot, would not be all that likely to raise a finger to stop the kind of astonishing violence that razed Kabul and Baghdad. Wonder where he'd stand on the Israeli use of white phosphorus on Palestinian civilians at the start of this year. Maybe the sequel will answer questions like this. Right?

Anyway, once Stark becomes Iron Man, it turns out the enemy was within, all along! Yes, cuddly Jeff Bridges - The Dude, Duder, El Duderino - shaved his head, grew a big grey beard and went nasty. He actually makes for a decent villain, mainly because he's largely unrecognisable. He cons the terrorists a little too easily for my liking, but he presents a decent threat. He's intelligent enough to cause massive issues for our hero, but not so clever that Stark can't outsmart him. Plus, he professionally delivers the two key arch-enemy speeches: the exposition one, wherein he calmly lets everyone know his motivations for everything ever, while the hero is otherwise incapacitated (aural paralysis pen-drive thing, in this case); and the grand finale 'how ironic! You sought to [INSERT NOBLE INTENTION], when really you [UNWITTINGLY HELPED THE VILLAIN]' monologue.

As a whole it was fine, though far from the best anything. Terrence Howard was perfunctory as Rhodes, though his financial demand-based absence in the sequel shouldn't be anything to shed tears over. The fight between Iron Man and Mecha Dude was entertaining... and visually clear. In fact, it was pretty much everything the messy Transformers fights were not. You could follow the action, differentiate the combatants and everything! Tell me about it. I was planning on writing up Transformers 2 ('Revenge of the Fallen' being one of the lamer subtitles in the history of recorded nomenclature), but the less said about that mockery of cinema the better, really. Michael Bay, please die. Actually, that's a tad harsh. He has done one thing of note in the last few years... But back to the matter at hand. The SHIELD reveal was nice, and got me a little excited, but not as excited as the post-credits Samuel L. Jackson cameo. That was schmart, and a satisfying slap in the face to those dimwits who leave cinemas as soon as the credits start to roll. Paltrow was her usual annoying self, but she didn't bring the film down to any great degree. We got 'Iron Man' the song. The flying sensation, and RDJ's reaction to it, were great and very satisfying. It didn't go on too long. All in all a good film, and I look forward to the sequel.

19 December 2009

Fact: decades

So I was asked to write a couple of blurbs for FACT's albums of the decade thing. I was happy to, and intrigued as to what the order of the alums would be. It was nice to both be involved and also just an audience member for the list itself. It wasn't a perfect list, but it was one of the better ones out there. I had meant to write a bunch about it, and maybe I still will. But it'll have to wait til I get back off my hols.

RadioheadKid A
(EMI/Parlophone, 2000)

In a move that some considered well weird, Radiohead began the decade by ditching the indie rock albatross for which they had been backslapped by all and sundry, and coming out with something a bit leftfield. Much had been made of the band holing up in a manor house while Thom Yorke divided his time betwixt an ideas blackboard and the Warp Records back-catalogue.

The result was a thrilling journey into the world of a band both big and imaginative enough to do whatever they wanted. ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, essentially Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ re-imagined as a blissed-out slab of electronica, nestled next to the super-Plone return to childhood that was the title track. Elsewhere, you’d find the agit-pop breakbeat brickbat ‘Idioteque’, Krautrock party piece ‘The National Anthem’ and the Björk-level serenity-in-discomfort of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’. Throughout, you’d find post-rock interludes, ambient epilogues and no wasted moments. It got some stick for not being really avant-garde, but the point was to open the ears of Radiohead’s myriad mainstream fans.

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era: no more singles; the band would release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted; no more 2-3 year album hype cycle. Compromise was inevitable, as they returned to singles and the multi-year wait. But, for a short while, Britain's biggest band was also its most intriguing. And that's not something you can say very often.

sunnO))) & BorisAltar
(Southern Lord, 2006)

Rather than a lame 'versus' collaboration, the two coolest names in modern heavy metal actually collaborated to create this thrilling album. Altar could have just been Pink + Black 1, and people would have eaten it up. Being the artists they are, though, from the murk and gloom of this Southern Lord supergroup came the spine-chilling slo-mo ballad 'The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)'; the enormo-fuck, synth-assisted mind annihilation of 'Akuma no Kuma'; the sinister hypnagogic assault of 'Fried Eagle Mind'. The suffocating atmosphere and low frequency overload meant Altar could be as palatable to Hyperdub fans as Relapse ones; perhaps more so.

Not just the five full-time members of the two bands, the record enlisted the likes of Jesse Sykes, Earth's Dylan Carlson and Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, but it sounds like the work of a single entity. So complete is the vision on Altar that there is a 28-minute 'prelude': Her Lips Were Wet With Venom (SatanOscillateMyMetallicSonatas)' boasts a palindromic arrangement to match its subtitle. While post-metal may largely be a damp squib, this record alone justifies the sub-genre's existence.

18 December 2009

The Ghost Of A Thousand: 'Knees, Toes, Teeth'

Hailing from punk rock hotbed, err, Brighton, TGOAT don't let their hometown's lack of gritty intensity hinder them. They're angry young men, presumably about all the party conferences going on in their neck of the woods, but you can’t really make out the words anyway. They realise their simmering angst in a catchy fashion that marries bang-yer-head riffs with swathes of frenetic melody, mixed in with howling screams and Iggy Pop snarls. But mainly the screams.

This is proper rock music, with mouthy guitars and testosterone flying all over the place (women possessing testosterone too, feminist rock fans). And it's pretty desperately required in a British music scene that has in recent times been so softened and greyed-out that any waster with a guitar is automatically described as 'rock'. The clue's in the name: if you do not rock, you probably are not rock.*

'This is our religion', TGOAT roar during the chorus. Based on the enthusiasm and fire on display here, you believe them. Can't vouch for the rest of the lyric, due to the aforementioned RAAR-iness of their delivery. There may be something in there about not liking New Romantics, but it could just as easily have been 'onomatopoeic'. The vocals do get clearer on the rest of the album, New Hopes, New Demonstrations, but this song's sub-three minute detonation is to that album as Deftones' explosive 'Elite' was to White Pony. It's the short, sharp shock of the record, and if Top of the Pops was still going, the kind of thing you'd want incongruously featured on there, like you'd get the Almighty doing back in the day.

* Indeed, recently unearthed parchment suggests this last sentiment was Descartes' planned sequel to cogito ergo sum.

17 December 2009

Dead Confederate – Wrecking Ball

Wrecking Ball is good, old-fashioned rock music. Dead Confed being from the state of Georgia (in America, as opposed to the former Soviet republic), the traditionally exaggerated rawk twang doesn't come across at all exaggerated. The pleasure that comes from listening to opener 'Heavy Petting' or single 'The Rat' (the latter complete with super-pronounced 'bang-bueeerrrnng') is awesomely free from guilt. It's also devoid of the if-it's-not-ironic-it-should-be air that hangs over the likes of Wolfmother, Jet or Black Mountain.

A detail worth mentioning is Hardy Morris' eerie vocal similarity to the late Kurt Cobain: that combination of pure, angelic, voice drowned in anguished grit and growl is far more compelling than the feeble attempts of Bush and early Silverchair, back in the dim and distant mid-1990s. You get the feeling this is not totally coincidental, either, as 'Goner' features that near-doom pace, swinging-axe riffing and wolf-trapped-in-snare howl of 'School's cry of 'no recess!' It's the kind of song you can see yourself happily listening to, years from now.

Some have compared Dead Confed to Radiohead. Such comparison is not entirely without merit, especially when listening to the widescreen, resigned, languor of 'Yer Circus', which aims at a spot near the end of OK Computer, but would fit more comfortably on the cynical, beaten-down Hail to the Thief. Thankfully, though comparisons could be made to Radiohead, Nirvana or even Cave In's delightful, spacious Jupiter, there is enough Dead Confederate on show here to suggest this is a band that is more than a grab-bag of influences. 'Start Me Laughing's melodic rage might remind a tad of Pearl Jam, but when was the last time that band had this level of urgency? It was a lifetime ago, and this is where the album pays dividends. It's essentially a (bizarrely southern) Grunge album at a time when most of that scene's main players are either dead or redundant.

Not only is this album a teensy-weensy bit derivative, but when the band slows proceeds down a notch, as on the lengthy 'The News Underneath', the quality dips. Live by the blues-tinged southern rock sword, die by the southern blues-rock ballad, it seems. 'Flesh Colored Canvas' is marginally better – it's aiming more for 'epic' than 'long ballad', even if it doesn't quite work – but even longer than the other one. Together they combine for 19 minutes, but it may as well be 19 hours. Or 19 months. 'Dry County', by Bon Jovi is a straight-up better long southern ballad (and from a northern band). And that's without getting into the actually really good stuff, like 'Tuesday's Gone', by Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Ted Nugent's 'Stranglehold'.

Luckily, this seemingly contractually obliged balladry is confined to two of the album's ten tracks; the rest of the record ambles on at a decent pace, with a respectable amount of intensity. This isn't, as press shots might indicate, the rawest, hungriest sound in rock. Compare it to golden oldies like Zeke, The Cramps, Harvey Milk or early Mondo Generator, and Wrecking Ball's pop sensibilities are suddenly evident. It'll come as little surprise, then, to learn that Dead Confederate were 'discovered' by Gary Gersh, the man what brung Nirvana to Geffen Records. Take this record for what is is – a nearly-great collection of well-performed southern rock songs with just enough bark and bite – and you'll find a real grower. Wrecking Ball rewards repeated listens, and bodes well for the future, especially if they take any inspiration from one-time tour-mates, and fellow Georgians, the Black Lips.

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