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    Location: Brooklyn, NY

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    Thursday, July 31, 2008

    Something is wrong here, something is terribly wrong

    Art by THANKS

    Welcome to snippet culture. With the click of a few buttons, you can get your news pre-sliced, your art pre-chewed, and your opinions predigested. Follow a YouTube link of a talk show clip to an excerpt of a thinkpiece retort to a real-time message-board backlash. For better and/or worse, we're living on scraps, soundbites, and hype(r)links these days. We've forgone phone calls for four-word texts and newsfeeds for actual updates from friends. It's a field full of teal deers, where we're more widely informed but only as deep as the headlines.

    Blah blah blah etc etc etc. If you've read this far, you may have noticed that cultural criticism is a tough thing to do. Registering your points can mean coming off as didactic or out-of-touch or hopelessly traditional. Or even worse yet, boring. So yeah, it's getting pretty clear we're oversaturated and that our attention spans are fraying under all this stimuli. But the more important question then becomes how to present that information in a potent and meaningful way. How to resonantly reflect your times, and yet produce something of lasting substance.

    The answer for many musicians nowadays is to make snippet music. In the last decade, we've seen great work from sample connoisseurs such as The Avalanches, The Books, and Girl Talk. In their own distinctive ways, they've made piecemeal collages that evoke the past but sound fiercely present. Voraciously consuming and processing data, they've shown little respect for genre boundaries or conventional contexts. And with information becoming more liquid by the minute and mixing technology ever-advancing, it also increasingly makes sense from a technical standpoint.

    However, if one man epitomizes the heights of snippet music, it'd have to be Steinski (né Steven Stein). Long a bootlegged, namedropped pioneer, he's finally getting his mass-market due with Illegal Art's new What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2008 Retrospective. At first, I was skeptical this album could stand up to the years of hype I'd heard, but it easily exceeds all of my expectations. At its core level, it's a monumental tour through hip-hop history. In Steinski's and partner Double Dee's classic first work, a remix contest entry called "Lesson 1 - The Payoff Mix," you can feel just how kinetic and fresh early rap sounded. You can hear the deep love they invested in each meticulously chosen ingredient. But just as remarkable is how indelibly it inspired future innovators like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, who both paid homage with their own early '90s Lessons.

    After taking on old-school hip-hop, Steinski extended his sensibility in more explicitly political directions. In 1987, he created "The Motorcade Sped On," his take on the JFK assassination. It's a brave--and brazen--topic to address, but if the song's treatment seemed flippant at the time, it sounds downright appropriate today. Steinski's reliance on quick cuts and gratuitous loops are a perfect representation of the 24-hour news cycle. Observations both gain and lose meaning as they're subjected to constant repetition. The moments of real, shocking tragedy are buffeted between a funky drum break (from the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman") and initiated by pop-culture punchlines (Ed McMahon's "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny" and Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner.") Steinski even darkly equates gunshots with drumbeats, further flattening the event.

    And yet in this reconstructed version, it's hard not to feel affected. The overload of effects creates a sense of chaos, and the leapfrogging between playfulness and horror makes the latter even more disarming. Hearing Walter Cronkite stuttering to make sense of the situation makes its own kind of messy sense. What at first seems offensive begins to feel like a 21st century tribute. It most closely resembles channel-surfing during a major news event--seeing the same flickers of images
    repeating across the dial, hearing every talking head regurgitating the information thus far, watching the scene play out from different camera angles. To get our heads around something as scarring as assassination, Steinski has to break it down first. He has to put his own personal spin on a massive act to effectively address it.

    Interestingly, Steinski's subject is pretty much ideally suited for that treatment. At a time when a television in every home was still somewhat novel, the Kennedy assassination was, before the moonwalk, the preeminent image in the national consciousness. Yet, because everyone experienced it a little differently, every American could construct his own individual narrative. With the Zapruder home video, the act took on even more overt subjectivity and shared iconography. (Consider Don DeLillo's Underworld, in which the characters attend a party with hundreds of TVs playing the video on a continuous loop.) And with the rampant conspiracy theories, no other 20th-century moment has been as exhaustively dissected, jumbled and reassembled. Beyond its immediate implications, Kennedy's death essentially exploded the notion of a neat, linear-threaded history.

    On its own terms, "The Motorcade Sped On" is a strange, jarring take on a searing event. But heard in a grander scope, it plays like a harbinger of our current climate. Steinski's music isn't just present but prescient. It doesn't just comment on the message, but turns the medium inward on itself. Beyond breaking new ground at the time, What Does It All Mean? is essential because it manages to sound even more relevant twenty-one years later. It positions Steinski not just as an important figure of his era, but, in this cut-and-paste culture, an artist that deserves to stand apart as one of the all-time legends.

    Up next: Part 2 of my Steinski writeup, discussing "It's Up To You"

    * MP3: "The Motorcade Sped On" - Steinski from What Does It All Mean?: A 1983-2006 Retrospective [Buy it]
    * Website: Steinski

    Wednesday, July 30, 2008

    Listening booth #39

    Photo by Byron Edwards

    * MP3: "The Escapist" - The Streets from Everything Is Borrowed [Buy other Streets]
    * MP3: "Sparrowfield" - Benoît Pioulard from Enge EP (Reissue) [Buy it]
    * MP3: "Big Belly Guns" - Tony Matterhorn from Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub [Buy it]

    Check out more photography by Byron Edwards here.

    Monday, July 28, 2008

    There ain't no life for me on land

    Photo by Laura Thorne

    The file you find below shouldn't be an MP3. No, if the costs weren't prohibitive, I'd send each and every one of you Ezra Carey's "Riverbed" on dusty, timeworn vinyl. That seems like the ideal way to appreciate a song that sounds so beautifully behind the times. It sounds like some forgotten treasure you'd salvage from your parents' record collection, excavated from an attic crate. And while the digital information insists it's from 2008, all I hear are '60s bonfires and communal nightswimming, dank weed clouds and pawnshop guitars. I see a record sleeve jaundiced with age, and a track listing (divided on two sides) eroding into palimpsets.

    That's not to say that "Riverbed" is a relic. Even as it mines a distant decade, it feels completely vital today. Along with peers like William Elliott Whitmore and Oakley Hall, Ezra Carey makes a strong case that folk music still has plenty of kick left in it. And I'm not talking about avant-folk or folk-punk or anti-folk, but the traditional, least fashionable strand based around sensitive voices and quiet strumming. It's the kind of music that doesn't fit into our noisy, adrenalized culture anymore, which is exactly why it's such a necessary detour.

    Of course, there's also the plain fact that "Riverbed" is a magical song. In large part, that's due to the vocal pairing of Ezra Carey and Mallory Posedel. The two complement each other terrifically, his earthbound twang giving texture to her dreamy echoes. It recalls Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Dawn McCarthy on The Letting Go, but somehow feels even prettier here. There are also the smartly spare lyrics, suggesting either great escape or deep despair. "The river is rising, rising/ Above my chin, above my chin/ and I open my mouth and let it in," the duo spellbindingly sings. "Yes, the river is rising, rising/ Above my head, above my head/ And she lays me down... upon her bed." In Ezra Carey's hands, that sounds like such a profoundly graceful option, a welcome refuge from the world these days.

    * MP3: "Riverbed" - Ezra Carey from The Fire Keeps Us Warm [Buy it]
    * MySpace: Ezra Carey

    Friday, July 25, 2008

    The greatest #8: The Dreaming

    Let's waste no time here: The Dreaming is some bizarre shit. If you're looking for tame, well-behaved pop, move on right along. This album is jagged and messy art-rock, and definitely not suited to everyone's taste. It's the sound of Kate Bush coming into her own, both figuratively (ratcheting up the artistic stakes skyward on her fourth work) and literally (self-producing her album for the first time). With no censor and new technology at her disposal, the twenty-four-year-old Bush could indulge any whim that struck her. She pretty much chose to cram them all in, creating a dense, theatrical fantasy world still unequaled today. The Dreaming sounded just as unique and puzzling in 1982, becoming the worst-selling album of Bush's thirty-year career. But as time has shown, it's also gone on to be her boldest and her best work.

    There are two essential elements of The Dreaming: Bush's vocals and the Fairlight CMI. Though the use of synthesizers became an '80s hallmark, nothing from that decade sounds even close to Bush's shriek. (The closest we've come since to matching the interplay of harsh and lovely is Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender.) Lulling the listener with a sweet melody, Bush quickly switches to something like a primal scream. On her song, "Pull Out The Pin," she uses her voice as nothing less than a weapon. Recounting the Vietnam War from the other side, she silkily sings, "
    You learn to ride the Earth,/ When you're living on your belly and the enemy are city-births./ Who needs radar? We use scent./ They stink of the West, stink of sweat,/ Stink of cologne and baccy, and all their Yankee hash." But setting that false trap, she detonates in the chorus, howling, "Just one thing in it/ Me or him/ And I love life, so I pull out the pin." All the pain and rage she conveys sound just as explosive as her character's actions.

    On "Night of the Swallow," Bush goes even further. She uses her expressive voice to create a dialogue between a criminal and his lover, playing both parts. The woman desperately urges him to abandon his mission, as he unctuously assures her he'll be all right. "'Though pigs can fly, they'll never find us/ Posing as the night, and I'll be home before morning,'" he says, with Bush supplying the requisite confidence. As the lover, she starts out angry and demanding, but finally settles on pleading. By the end, his cool front breaks down too, imploring her, "Give me something to show for my miserable life.../ Let me, let me go." It's a one-woman-show, a shadowy film noir and a three-act relationship drama masterfully condensed into a single song.

    As potent as her vocals are, Bush's music is just as important and idiosyncratic. It melds pedestrian instruments like guitars and pianos with uillean pipes and didgeridoos. It complements the album's wide scope of topics with equally catholic styles. "There Goes A Tenner" bops like an old-world waltz, and "Suspended in Gaffa" nimbly hops around like a harvest dance. Album opener "Sat In Your Lap" hits hard with forceful drum machines, sounding almost like a strand of industrial music. But the album's connecting force is that aforementioned Fairlight CMI, rooting the work firmly in the early '80s.

    For better or worse, The Dreaming doesn't sound as time-stamped as other Fairlight alumni, like Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" or Peter Gabriel's "Shock The Monkey." Bush integrates the synthesizer more organically into her soundscapes, though it still clearly registers. The reason it works so well here is its wonderful contrast with Bush's voice, its smooth contours countering her sharp-edged wail. It's also used in lots of different and creative ways, evoking almost as many moods and settings as Bush herself.

    The most exciting mix of vocals and music arrives at the very end, with "Get Out of My House." Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, the song finds Bush at the height of her sorceress powers. Over her repeated scream of [a door] "slamming," and the driving pound of percussion, Bush manically begs "Get out of my house!" The song is about possession in every sense of the word, and it's a performance as searing as Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance. As the music viciously thrums forward, Bush reveals, "
    This house is full of my mess/ This house is full of mistakes,/ This house is full of madness/ This house is full of, full of, full of, full of fight." That's just as true of The Dreaming in its entirety, where weirdness is beauty and both those forces are overflowing.

    * MP3: "Pull Out The Pin" - Kate Bush from The Dreaming
    * MP3: "Get Out of My House" - Kate Bush from The Dreaming [Buy it]

    Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    Got my drink and my two-step

    Photo by Matt Handy

    Summer is for sequels. From Batman to Hellboy to The Mummy and even to Hamlet, everywhere you turn there's new chapters to old stories. Not to be outdone, Girl Talk is joining in the spirit of the season with a sequel all his own. Sure, Feed The Animals doesn't technically carry that designation, just like Amnesiac wasn't officially called Kid B, but it's pretty clear we're getting a tried-and-true formula here. Sample upon sample engineered for maximum nostalgia, disparate genres gleefully mashed together, the old-school and new bumping heads like a dysfunctional family reunion.

    But is that enough? While The Dark Knight brilliantly built new ground on Batman Begins' foundation and hey, at least The Mummy's moving to China, what is Gregg Gillis' new album offering that Night Ripper didn't? (Even his pay-what-you-want release strategy is pretty much a Radiohead redux.) The main (and inevitable) difference here is he's updating us on the last two years of music, reminding us that oh yeah, "Roc Boys" and "Umbrella" were big songs last year. Because his last album was such a pivotal development, I was hoping for something equally singular this time around. Instead, Feed The Animals feels a little too easy, an album that could've just as convincingly been made by a Girl Talk enthusiast.

    Of course, the counterargument is that none of that really matters. The point is to have fun, to dance, and to rock out to all the big beats and wacky juxtapositions. Dr. Dre and Styx!? Lil Mama and Metallica!!?! When I disconnect my music-critic circuitry, and just enjoy the songs as songs, it is a helluva lot of fun. And ignoring the existence of Night Ripper and the idea that artists should be continual innovators, it is really well done. Gillis has retained his talent for pairing and paring, and few musicians in any genre can match him in sounding so full-on joyous.

    For me, the far-and-away best demonstration of that is "Still Here," a perfect four-minute introduction to Girl Talk at his best. There's so much that works about the track, but just some of its choicest features: the torch-passing tête-à-tête of "No Diggity" and "Flashing Lights," the trunk-rattling "oh shit" snippet from "London Bridge," and the brilliantly bizarre union of The Band and Yung Joc. However, none of that touches its very best moment arriving at 2:10. When Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" collides with "My Drink n My 2 Step" by Cassidy featuring Swizz Beatz, it's pretty much incredible. It's thrilling, fresh and so much better together than either of those shitty songs separately. Even if Feed The Animals does somewhat disappoint as a whole, that moment achieves exactly what a sequel should: it leaves me really excited to see what's coming up next.

    * MP3: "Still Here" - Girl Talk from Feed The Animals [Buy it]

    The writing on the wall #38

    Montreal edition #12

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    I have done my time on this one

    Photo by Richard Holt

    Leave it to Hello Damascus to try dampening expectations. Their latest title, "Iterative At Best," sounds more like an excuse or an apology. Iterative--meaning repetitive or reiterating--is one of the last adjectives I'd apply to this sad, gorgeous song. But then, this Portland band has always trafficked in modesty and understatement. Their 2006 album, Harvest Dolls, was a slow-blooming wonder, full of soft-spoken melancholy and quiet grandeur. That album's lead-off track, "Randy," didn't just stealthily rend hearts; it was capable of performing quadruple bypasses.

    Fortunately, "Iterative At Best" is a worthy successor to "Randy," and the band's best song since. It shares a similar mood--wise but wounded, hopeful but weary. Its lyrics are vague, centering on crime and guilt in some loose existential sense. "I don't need a hearin',/ I have done my time on this one,/ It comes down to who you're with and when," Matt Lounsbury sings like an workaday Atlas. His delivery reminds me of Matt Berninger on some long-lost National B-side, which, around here, is pretty high praise.

    Musically, Hello Damascus is operating just as much at the top of their game. Contrasting Lounsbury's soul-searching vocals, the accompaniment brightly sways and struts between verses. Jason Madore's piano and Jeff Hardison's drumming brim with life, nicely accented with touches of warm brass. It's not only the most excitable this four-piece has sounded to date, but also the largest. Every instrument registers its full capacity, making its presence deeply felt. Every woozy melody line and jazzy bridge feels proud and vital.

    Ultimately though, the song's best feature is its vast replayability. Like all eight tracks on Harvest Dolls, it only gets better with time and multiple listens. It expands and strengthens, showcasing different winning aspects on different occasions. Sometimes, it'll be the way Lounsbury's bandmates join in on certain lines like the last proponents of a failing cause. Other times, it's that triumphant piano, bravely charging uphill despite its Sisyphean task. Yet other times, it'll be those last few chords, so eager to chug out on a high note. Iterative at best? After twenty-five plays and counting, it sounds more like iterative at its very best.

    * MP3: "Iterative At Best" - Hello Damascus
    * MP3: "Randy" - Hello Damascus from Harvest Dolls [Download the album]
    * MySpace: Hello Damascus
    * Previously: Out in front: Hello Damascus MP3s

    The writing on the wall #37

    Montreal edition #11

    The writing on the wall #36

    Montreal edition #10

    Wednesday, July 09, 2008

    The best albums of 2008 so far

    Photo from Josh Nunn

    Most years, it's somewhat of a struggle to compose a halfway-there albums list. There are always the far-and-away favorites, but rounding out the total with a worthy ten takes some extra work. Not this year. In fact, the greater challenge was culling the list to just an extended fifteen. And unlike the songs and singles bests-of, this one proved to be more well-rounded and multivariate. Dance and hip-hop works do make a deep dent, but there are also strong showings for folk, rock, soul, pop, and all the bastard hybrids contained therein. There are albums on major labels, indie labels, micro-labels, and even one that's self-released. And the list is almost evenly split between Americans and Europeans. As the music scene continues to splinter and proliferate, it'll be harder than ever to keep track of all of its developments. But if it keeps hitting such varied highs, I'm more than willing to make that effort.

    15) Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust - Sigur Ros
    In time, I think Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust will be seen as Sigur Ros's transition album. The one where they cautiously starting loosening their structure and inviting more pop sounds in. Even though traces of the ambient Ágætis Byrjun era linger throughout, many of the songs have become noticeably shorter and lighter. It's an tantalizing turn, especially since my favorite tracks here like "Goobledigook" and the incredible "Inní mér syngur vitleysingur" follow the newer model. It really makes me want to hear their full-length take on joyous Icelandic pop, but for now, this album only foretells possible futures.
    * MP3: "Goobledigook" - Sigur Ros from Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust [Buy it]

    14) Lavalogy - Hot Lava
    Some people take antidepressants; I take daily doses of Hot Lava. It's that joyous and that joy-inducing, a bolt of sunshine straight to the cranium. The band's melodies are big and lustrous, with choruses that practically implore you to sing along. The lyrics are silly and surreal, often conflating love, technology and monsters with a toddler's whimsy. And the music shimmies and boogies with tireless joie de vivre like a sock-hop on coke. After a few spins of Lavalogy, it's pretty hard not to feel cheered up, let alone to resist dancing at your desk.
    * MP3: "Apple Option Fire" - Hot Lava from Lavalogy [Buy it]
    * Previously: You might as well be off to dreamland

    13) Santogold - Santogold
    * MP3: "Creator" - Santogold from Santogold [Buy it]

    12) Jim - Jamie Lidell
    Oh, if only Jamie Lidell were a heroin addict with a beehive and a propensity to punching fans. Then maybe he'd be getting the plaudits for giving blue-eyed soul its modern sheen. But even if his mug isn't plastered across checkout tabloids, Lidell's expanding a reliably solid genre to whole new audiences. He melds an old-school devotion with new-school arrangements, backing his croon with refreshingly funky accompaniments. But even as his music bops and bounces in the present, his voice is a ticket back to the heyday of classic soul records.

    11) II Trill - Bun B
    Fact is, I have trouble putting rap albums on lists like these. My favorite albums are those you can digest from start to finish, without ever once seeking out the skip button. Rap albums, on the other hand, usually operate in direct opposition to that aesthetic. They're overloaded with a mix that ranges from the incredible to the pleasant to the passable to the downright intolerable. (Paging Dr. Carter...) Bun B's II Trill is a pretty classic example of this rule, though his hit-to-miss ratio is impressively high. Knockouts like "Swang on 'Em," "Underground Thang" and the wrenching "If I Die II Night" more than make up for clunkers like "Good II You" and "If It Was Up II Me," totaling an effort that's impossible to skip by.
    * MP3: "Swang on 'Em" - Bun B ft. Lupe Fiasco from II Trill [Buy it]

    10) Chuckmore: The Mix II - Chuck Dollarsign
    Is this even an album? An EP? A single song? At thirty-two minutes and change, it's a little of each, but whatever categorization you pick, it's singularly awesome. Even among Chuck Dollarsign's distinguished back catalog, this recent mix represents a new peak. For its entire run, Chuckmore: The Mix II bangs out straight heat like a New York summer. Seamlessly fusing his electronic, hip-hop, and pop affections, Dollarsign is making dance mixes for now--pluralistic, schizophrenic, and breathlessly ecstatic. Get on this.
    * MP3: Chuckmore: The Mix II - Chuck Dollarsign [Visit him]
    * Previously: Blood rain
    * Previously: Chuckmore

    9) The Midnight Organ Fight - Frightened Rabbit
    Credit Frightened Rabbit for coining the least sexy euphemism for sex to date and then naming their album after it. Scott Hutchinson has even more cold showers in store when he declares, "You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg" and "[You] won't find love in a hole,/ It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm." Fortunately, his crippling loss of self-esteem is our gain, with songcraft that's both potent and virile. With every song, your urge to raise a pint and shake your fist will grow, as Hutchinson's voice soars and every other part of him shrinks.
    * MP3: "Old Old Fashioned" - Frightened Rabbit from The Midnight Organ Fight [Buy it]

    8) Rising Down - The Roots
    * Previously: I I I can't help it

    7) Heretic Pride - The Mountain Goats
    After the disappointingly limp Get Lonely, John Darnielle charges back with a full-throated return to The Sunset Tree template. It's a further evolution of his latter-day sound, swapping out the lo-fi sound for increasingly pretty orchestrations. Not unlike The Midnight Organ Fight, these are songs that creep up on you and slowly bloom into outsider anthems. The details are rich and crisp, telling stories of fringe characters and sensitive souls freighted with feeling. It's also subtly political, capturing a troubling time and place through the lens of the troubled.
    * MP3: "Sax Rohmer #1" - The Mountain Goats from Heretic Pride [Buy it]

    6) Third - Portishead
    Just think how much has occurred in the last eleven years. Hell, think how much has gone down in only five. That much time out of the musical slipstream usually means you've run out of ideas; a long-delayed comeback usually means your moment has passed by. If acts are lucky, they've waited long enough for the culture to cycle back to nostalgia. But Portishead wasn't content to cannibalize their old sound or go on tired reunion tours. They've not only stepped forward boldly; they've moved well past their peers. Even as Third represents a potent sound of now, it also feels so beautifully timeless.
    * Previously: For I am guilty for the voice that I obey

    5) Saturdays = Youth - M83
    * MP3: "Graveyard Girl" - M83 from Saturdays = Youth [Buy it]
    * Previously: We are right to fall

    4) Pop-Up - Yelle
    It's a happy confluence this album would come out as I was learning French. Even to the uninitiated, the exuberance and joy that Yelle puts into her work can't be missed. And the buoyant dance tunes and Yelle's pop persona are alone worth the listen. But paying attention to the words adds a whole other layer of charm, as Yelle brings as much manic energy to her lyrics. They also suggest a deep debt and reverence to American pop, though with Pop-Up, Yelle is leaping and bounding above her stateside contemporaries.
    * MP3: "Amour du Sol" - Yelle from Pop-Up [Buy it]
    * Previously: Frappe tes mains, bouge ton corps

    3) Lie Down in the Light - Bonnie "Prince" Billy
    Contentment should be boring. No one wants to hear how happy or comfortable others are for forty-five minutes, and the idea of framing an album around peaceful feelings sounds pretty excruciating. But Bonnie "Prince" Billy not only masterfully pulls off the positivity, he delivers one of his career bests in doing so. (The other, I'd argue, is Palace Music's Viva Last Blues.) Even as he radiates gladness, he sounds captivating. He dispenses little flecks of wisdom like a rocking-chair deacon. The spare instrumentation echoes him like a congregation. And when he sings, "Every time I look around, I am the king of infinite space," nothing has ever seemed so alluring.
    * MP3: "Easy Does It" - Bonnie "Prince" Billy from Lie Down in the Light [Buy it]
    * Previously: Good, earthly music singing into my head

    2) Made in the Dark - Hot Chip
    * MP3: "We're Looking For A Lot of Love" - Hot Chip from Made in the Dark [Buy it]
    * Previously: Review #7: Made in the Dark by Hot Chip

    1) Rook - Shearwater
    Hymns for epic heroes, requiems for civilizations. Now that the stakes are woefully higher, Shearwater's songs have grown even more delicately rendered. The stories Rook tells, via Jonathan Meiburg's lush vocals, are richer sketches of a vicious world. The music has become even more enchanting and special, evoking arias and orchestras almost as much as indie-rock theatrics. This has yielded an album that can't be heard passingly or casually--it requires your rapt attention, and it rewards every moment of investment threefold.
    * MP3: "Rooks" - Shearwater from Rook [Buy it]
    * Previously: Desert shores and the forest green and a limitless life

    Monday, July 07, 2008

    Mixtape for my sweetheart, the drunk #23

    1) "Green Shirt" - Elvis Costello and the Attractions from Armed Forces [Buy it]
    2) "Miracle Drug" - A.C. Newman from The Slow Wonder [Buy it]
    3) "Old Old Fashioned" - Frightened Rabbit from The Midnight Organ Fight [Buy it]
    4) "The Music Next Door" - The Lucksmiths from Warmer Corners [Buy it]
    5) "I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms" - The Modern Lovers from The Modern Lovers [Buy it]
    6) "Summer Vacation" - Desmond Reed [Visit him]
    7) "Too Drunk To Dream - Magnetic Fields from Distortion [Buy it]
    8) "Parallel or Together?" - Ted Leo and the Pharmacists from The Tyranny of Distance [Buy it]
    9) "Don't Ask Me To Explain" - Of Montreal from Cherry Peel [Buy it]
    10) "Lovestain" - José González from Veneer [Buy it]
    11) "I Want The One That I Can't Have" - The Smiths from Meat Is Murder [Buy it]
    12) "Two Ways" - The 1900s from Cold & Kind [Buy it]
    13) "I'm A Cuckoo" - Belle and Sebastian from Dear Catastrophe Waitress [Buy it]

    Or you can download the full mix as a .zip here.

    Wednesday, July 02, 2008

    The best singles of 2008 so far

    To my slight surprise, almost all of my favorite singles of 2008 so far as electronic in nature. No doubt that's due in large part to my changing tastes (you can see the transition occurring here, here, here and here), but it's also due to the renaissance in electronic music taking place over the last few years. Once-marginal acts are getting mainstream attention, and genres are blending to a point of becoming irrelevant labels. In fact, the electronic tent has grown so wide that it's tough to cite too many similarities between the songs listed here. Some are dancefloor-driven, others are quieter explorations, while yet others are uniquely experimental. To me, that breadth of options is a very encouraging development, and I, for one, can't wait to see what's up ahead.


    * MP3: "C.Y.O.A." - HEARTSREVOLUTION from "C.Y.O.A." EP [Buy it]
    * Previously: You say you want revolution

    14) "Beeper" - Count and Sinden ft. Kid Sister
    Along with The Cool Kids' "Gold and a Pager," this seems to be the year to celebrate outdated technology. If so, I'm looking forward to seeing a A-Trak track called "56K Modem" or a Ocelot club-banger called "Rotary Telephone." If not, we've still got the supremely likable "Beeper" to enjoy. It's got some mid-section verses from Flosstradamus sis Kid Sister, who rhymes just like her name suggests--affable, cute, non-threatening. But it's the chorus that wins me over most, stuttering out "beep-uh-beep-uh-beep-uh" onomatopoetically to the chirp of those dinosaur devices.

    13) "U.R.A. Fever" - The Kills
    You can practically smell the cigarette smoke wafting from their lips. VV's pharmacy lipstick smeared messily across her mouth, Hotel sweating in a vintage suede jacket. "U.R.A. Fever" sounds grungy, punctuated with wayward noises and a sinister drum machine. Both singers come off as jaded and louche, with VV especially purring out every line like a femme fatale. And when they talk of debauched fates like "livin' in a suitcase" and "eyes like a casino," unlike other performers, it sounds like they know exactly what they're talking about.
    * MP3: "U.R.A. Fever" - The Kills from "U.R.A. Fever" EP [Buy it]

    12) "Graveyard Girl" - M83
    "Graveyard Girl" is a portal back in time, to decorated lockers, gym streamers and bag lunches. Not only is its sound Members Only '80s, but its Goth girl infatuation is an instant callback for quarterlifers like me and Anthony Gonzalez. Every school had its clique of eyeliner-abusing, funeral-ready sulkers, and M83's tribute to them is appropriately poetic and sensitive. "She worships Satan like a father, but dreams of a sister like Molly Ringwald," he says, in one of many dead-on descriptions. Even better at capturing a teenager's overwrought drama: "I'm fifteen years old and I feel it's already too late to live." And just like that, Gonzalez distills a hundred late-night diary entries into one pitch-perfect line.
    * MP3: "Graveyard Girl" - M83 from "Graveyard Girl" EP [Buy it]

    11) "Motor" - SebastiAn
    Surely the most divisive song on this list, "Motor" is four-minutes-plus of electronic noise. Whether that prospect excites you or irritates you, it's hard to remain neutral on a track so proudly in-your-face. French DJ Sebastian Akchoté simulates a motor revving over and over, like some Formula One snippet with the needle skipping. A pounding bass thumps in and out of the mix too, giving the song an additional punch. And it even squeals and creaks as if it's hitting sharp turns. All these effects sound pretty good at my desk, but in a club, speeding out of a powerful soundsystem, is when "Motor" really kicks into overdrive.
    * MP3: "Motor" - SebastiAn from "Motor" EP [Buy it]

    10) "Wait for the Summer" - Yeasayer
    This is the kind of song that they'll use to sell air freshener someday. Much like Royal Caribbean co-opted Iggy Pop's heroin ode "Lust for Life" to peddle cruises, "Wait for the Summer" sounds ripe for misinterpretation. It's gleefully summery, with soaring vocal melodies and a thick appliqué of tambourines. But its happy handclaps can't hide its dark exterior, a Eminem-esque tale of shooting your wife in a drunk stupor and being haunted by her murder. Knowing that story radically recasts the music, not as a celebration but a desperate escape. Not that I expect that should bother the ad execs. Let the bidding wars begin!
    * MP3: "Wait for the Summer" - Yeasayer from "Wait for the Summer" EP [Buy it]

    9) "Ready For The Floor" - Hot Chip

    8) "The Healer" - Erykah Badu
    After Baduizm's multi-platinum success, Erykah Badu could've easily shed her weirder eccentricities. Like a political candidate tilting toward the center, she could've Diane Warren-ed it up and offset her quirks with syrupy ballads. Remarkably, she's veered even further off-kilter, getting more anti-commercial with every release. "The Healer" is the best product of that idiosyncrasy (Worldwide Underground the worst), a track that could only have originated from Badu. It's hypnotically strange, unfurling over Madlib's minimal beat and invoking an ideology that's both impenetrable and defiantly personal.
    * MP3: "The Healer" - Erykah Badu from "The Healer" EP [Buy it]

    7) "Invaders" - DSL
    * MP3: "Invaders" - DSL from "Invaders" EP [Buy it]

    6) "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
    Everyone lost their shit over "Paper Planes" in 2007, but it wasn't officially released as a single until March. I didn't mind since "Down River" and "Jimmy" were always more my jams anyway. Still, there's no denying this song's luster any more than you can downplay its ubiquity. Acts as acclaimed as Holy Fuck, DFA, Adrock, and Bun B lined up to put their unique stamps on it, and it appeared on virtually every playlist of every party I attended. The only competitor even coming close in indie hype-lah last year was Justice's D.A.N.C.E. Now that the noise has faded, it remains an amazingly addictive track hitting every pleasure center in sight. An oh yeah, guess what, it's got gunshots!

    5) "Lovely Allen" - Holy Fuck
    This song makes me miss San Francisco. It's the kind of music I'd listen to when I'd set off on long walks to nowhere, exploring Golden Gate Park or Tenderloin crack alleys to a sympathetic soundtrack. But even more central to my wandering was the city's landscape, packed with tremendous hills and dips. Walking up a steep slope, seeing the cyan-sky city unfurl around me, it felt like an epiphany. And that's how I feel about "Lovely Allen," which builds and builds majestically until cresting open into mini-revelations. It's the upward climb to the horizon line, but also the euphoria of learning just how much beauty surrounds you.
    * MP3: "Lovely Allen" - Holy Fuck from "Lovely Allen" EP [Buy it]

    4) "Je Veux Te Voir" - Yelle
    Frankly, Jay-Z's "Takeover" and Company Flow's "Linda Trip" don't come close to touching the toxicity of "Je Veux Te Voir." As dis songs go, this one is so plainspokenly cruel and dismantling that I for one will never mess with Yelle. Tearing apart Cuizinier of Parisian hip-hop group TTC, she opens with "avec ton petit sexe entoure de poils roux/ Je n’arrive pas a croire que tu puisses croire qu’on veuille de toi." (Roughly: "With your tiny dick surrounded by red pubes,/ I can't believe you can believe anyone wants you.") From there, she compares his member to a French fry, calls him a Li'l Jon fan mimicking American rappers, and even advises, "Garde ta chemise, ça limitera les degats, batard." ("Keep your T-shirt on, it'll limit the damage, bastard.") And on top of all that, the song samples "Short Dick Man." But the very worst revenge? Making "Je Veux Te Voir" so poppy and playful that it became a huge single.
    * MP3: "Je Veux Te Voir" - Yelle from "Je Veux Te Voir" EP [Buy it]

    3) "Royal Flush" - Big Boi ft. Andre 3000 and Raekwon
    In my more skeptical moments, I think the reason I love "Royal Flush," "Int'l Player's Anthem (I Choose You)" and "Da Art of Storytellin' Part 4" so much is the law of supply. With Big Boi and Andre 3000 trickling out tracks so painfully piecemeal, diehard fans like me will take whatever we can get. And of course, it's easier to obsess over a certain track when you only have that track. Still, even in perspective, both of Outkast's last at-bats have all been unqualified home runs, standing up to the best of the group's catalog. "Royal Flush" finds this "Skew It On The Bar-B" reunion easily continuing the win streak. All three men rhyme like rappers hungry for fame rather than established legends, and their flows mesh as perfectly as ever. It almost makes me wish Outkast tracks would only appear in six-month intervals.

    2) "Creator" - Santogold
    It was my #5 song of 2007, and time has done nothing to blunt its frenetic goodness. From its intro, where Santi White emotes like a cat in heat, to the chorus, where she punches out every word like a phonetics exercise, the vocals on "Creator" are exactly what this song requires. They're brave, they're bizarre, they're unapologetic. Switch and Freq Nasty's beat steps up to the challenge, matching Santogold's prickly weirdness with their own bells-and-whistles. Their production slinks and seesaws through a gauntlet of electronic effects, merrily tossing in every trick in the book. And so "Creator," an anthem for all the artists coming up, ultimately pays the biggest tribute to its own up-and-coming stars.
    * MP3: "Creator" - Santogold from "Creator" EP [Buy it]

    1) "Machine Gun" - Portishead
    Stand back or run for cover. This is "Machine Gun"'s moment, a glorious endpoint for these endtimes. Effortlessly synthesizing industrial, pop, avant and electronic, it draws on the past to decimate the future. With every malevolent snare, drum slap, and rat-a-tat-tatting machine, it lays waste even as it mourns the fallout. Beth Gibbons has never sounded more gorgeous, trying to eulogize her own self-destruction. But even she can't survive the heavy shelling occurring around her. The last minute becomes purely instrumental, led by a synthesizer singing a dirge. Like Gibbons, it sounds conflicted, unsure whether to continue the bloodletting or accept an inevitable surrender.
    * MP3: "Machine Gun" - Portishead from "Machine Gun" EP [Buy it]
    * Previously: For I am guilty for the voice that I obey

    Up next: The best albums of 2008 so far