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Goat – World Music album review

Every so often a record comes out that firmly separates the men from the boys, and Goat’s World Music is one of them. In fact, it may be the one for all time.

Any review of this record would be remiss in not at least touching on Goat’s purported origin story. The band hails from Korpilombolo, a town in Norrbotten County, Sweden, with less than 600 residents. Korpilombolo has a long history of voodoo tradition, supposedly brought there by a witch doctor led to the village by a hidden cipher. After going undisturbed for a long time, the voodoo practitioners were driven out by the Christian church and subsequently placed a curse on the village. According to the band’s website, “the power of the curse can be felt throughout the grooves of the Goat records.”

Goat is less a band than it is an entity…or perhaps even an energy. It is a self-proclaimed collective that apparently began decades ago in a commune, where the band would play epic hours-long jams, almost entirely improvised. So with a fluid and dynamic lineup now purported to be composed of more than 20 members, there really is no Goat. There are very few actual names to whom we can attribute this music (none listed on the record), and the band plays live in elaborate costumes and masks. If Goat’s origin story is to be believed at all, many musicians have come and gone, perhaps lived and died, over the ensuing decades between the band’s formation and the release of 2012’s World Music, Goat’s first full-length.

Even crazier, Rocket Records, Goat’s UK label, had been in cursory talks with the band about doing the record. Goat had casually agreed but then fell silent, prompting fears that they had had second thoughts. Then the World Music album showed up in Rocket’s inbox…professionally recorded and fully mastered, as if by some act of conjuring.

People are calling this psychedelic rock, and I suppose in some way it is. But really this is totally unclassifiable, which is a beautiful thing. There are times when this sounds like the best moments of Funkadelic…and others where it features polyrhythms and sounds like an afrobeat freakout or some sort of doom trance that’s not going to end well. Regardless, labels are unnecessary here.

The record kicks off with its only cover, “Diarabi” by Boubacar Traore, a Mali-born musician who himself has made music for decades that incorporates myriad styles, from American blues to West African pentatonic. The original is good but relatively slow and acoustic. Goat turns the same song into a multilayered wall of fuzz, electric guitar, and polyrhythmic beats that serves as a proper introduction to what follows.

The next song, “Goatman,” introduces the goat as concept. An anonymous member of the collective has said the goat is “a symbol for surrendering your individuality to the greater good of the group, the collective. A kind of sacrifice.” There is a sound bite at the beginning of the song that seems to support this, saying, “There is a Creole expression, ‘to walk together.’ Where life is hard, people depend upon and help each other so that man may pray together to praise the same moral principles and together reaffirm them.” The idea of the worldwide collective. The goat is also widely used as a magical trope in Scandinavian culture, sometimes even having control over the devil.

“Goathead” follows, beginning with a repetitive and ominous bass line that gives way to screaming guitar and what can only be described as tribal drums. One may mistake the haunting layered female vocals for a result of studio overdubbing, but if their live show is any indication, Goat (at least some incarnations, anyway) has two female vocalists who manage to perfectly harmonize their voices on this and other songs.

“Disco Fever” is a song that could make a Lutheran minister dance on Sunday morning. Again, driving polyrhythms made with a standard kit coupled with tribal drums. Alongside that are a repeated guitar riff and almost hypnotic, detached female vocals. This song takes the guitar and drum parts of American funk music and elevates them to a new plane. If this song doesn’t make you shake your ass, you’re made of stone. “People keep dancing…into the early dawn.” Indeed.

The hottest track on here, as far as I’m concerned, is “Run to Your Mama.” This song perfectly encapsulates the menace and aggressive sexuality that Goat seems to effortlessly command. It opens with a frightening guitar track that cuts like a straight razor, and below it rolls the sound of driving Indian percussion reminiscent of tablas. The percussion smoothly becomes two guitar notes played in rapid succession, over and over, forming a rubberband-elastic drone. The female vocals that have been largely benevolent until now become downright vicious, beginning with an icy “Ha!” before belting out, “Cool me with the rain/Boy, you better run to your mama now/Lightning in the sky/Boy, you better run to your mama now.” It’s a merciless taunt, a sexual challenge of sorts that simultaneously evokes the urge to flee coupled with a contradictory and uncontrollable need to wander forward in a trance state, into unspeakable darkness or eternal pleasures.

Pick this one up with the quickness, and buy it on vinyl! There is a seemingly endless palette of colored wax, in varying degrees of limited availability. And the die-cut cover that allows the patterned inner sleeve to show through is a work of art unto itself.

Watch for Goat’s new “Dreambuilding” 7” on Sub Pop Records, released June 4, 2013. If you can’t wait, it’s available now as a UK 12” (ltd. to 500).

Goat - World Music album review

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Valentina – Wolves EP review

Wolves is the long-anticipated five-song EP by Valentina Pappalardo (who records simply as Valentina). It is the follow-up to her 2011 EP Weights, which started a buzz about the singer’s voice that only gained momentum while fans waited for her next release.

From all outward appearances, Valentina has it all. The sexy Italian-English songstress is lithe and brooding, with thick dark hair, pale skin, and full lips. She looks…and on the surface sort of sounds…like she should be staring out from a David Lynch film. Some sort of muse to strange subterranean debauchery that makes sense only once the viewer lets go of the need to impose sense. I wanted to like this before I even heard one note. I wanted Valentina to be Siouxsie Sioux but sexier, Marianne Faithfull but darker, Nico without the track marks and self-loathing. But she’s none of these things. And despite my predisposition to like Wolves, instead I found it musically boring and lyrically trite.

Valentina is a technically proficient vocalist, though at times it is hard to tell. The moments where her voice is completely pure and unprocessed are few. Is she a raw talent or just another pop success created via studio wizardry and the magic of filters and effects?

The songs here have a tendency to build and then fall flat, as if they are never able to reach their crescendo. Half-stillborn, they slowly slink out and then away, with no semblance of dynamism. The songs feel only skin deep and underdeveloped.

The simplistic, repetitive lyrics only add to the shallow feel of this record. In the title track, “Wolves,” for example: “You see it in your sleep, the howling wolves are coming out to haunt us down…and the road’s in a straight line” (which is, by the way, about 80 percent of the song’s entire lyrical content, repeated over and over). Or the simplistic imagery of “Gabriel”: “Wide awake and I can hear my heart beat. Hope it cradles me and rocks my bones to sleep.”

At the beginning of “Gabriel,” it seems as if the music will become an experimental soundscape. Layers of seemingly discordant sound—soft, repetitive electronic wash, keyboards (and is that an organ?), and then Valentina’s unadulterated voice—start the song. Then things fall away to formula and emptiness.

The bottom line is that music has to be evocative, has to have something behind it. It needs to elicit a gut response in listeners, whether that’s to make them want to fight or dance or fuck or whatever. It has to have the power to spark something inside people. Wolves does not succeed in this; instead it is flaccid, sterile, and empty. It provides no challenge at all, and certainly no authenticity.

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Alessi’s Ark – The Still Life album review

The Still Life, the third proper full-length from Alessi’s Ark (the project of 22-year-old Alessi Laurent-Marke), is an album about contrasts. And how fitting, then, that the lyrics throughout offer such depth and introspection as to belie Laurent-Marke’s mere 22 years. But perhaps that’s no surprise, given Alessi’s prolific output since 2007. She is obviously driven to make art and perhaps therefore also driven to feel on a level deeper than most 22-year-olds are capable.

Laurent-Marke’s voice is in itself a contrast—both innocent and sultry, simultaneously that of a schoolgirl and a siren—and it is her greatest instrument on this album. It physically manifests the juxtaposition of innocence and aged depth that permeates here.

But the contrasts spotlighted in The Still Life are not all so abstract. The opening track, “Tin Smithing,” harks to this, speaking of the collaboration between flesh and metal—human hands with tin. This is no doubt an intentional introduction to the album, a warning of sorts to the listener that what follows is a departure from previous Alessi’s Ark albums. The Still Life veers slightly away from the more straight-ahead organic folkiness of the past and introduces electronics into both the instrumentation and the mastering, which only serves to enhance the richness and complexity of this album.

This is indeed a pensive album, and “the still life” evoked in the title acts as both a reference to the slice-of-life quality it captures and also implores the listener to take more time to quietly ponder the idiosyncrasies of life. And like real life, The Still Life does not provide a trite transition from dark to light or vice versa; it is a balanced mix of both—the hopeful interspersed amongst the bleak…or is it the other way around?

On the light side, there is the lilting, gentle teasing of “Whatever Makes You Happy” (“Whatever makes you happy is what you’re supposed to do…. Hey, big chicken, who are you kidding?”) or the upbeat sentiment “Life is good, and it can’t stay still” of “Sans Balance.” Conversely there is the dark mystery of “Afraid of Everyone” (“I’m afraid of everyone…. But I don’t have the drugs to sort it out”), which has a sparse, Joy Division–like quality. And “Hands in the Sink” deftly tackles the theme of regret, of making the wrong choices. It opens with an organ dirge, evoking a funeral. Doing the dishes, the song’s narrator considers how she washes one man’s clothes but wishes she had chosen differently: “I clean his clothes, but it’s yours I would have chose.” The darkness tempers the light, and vice versa.

In “Veins Are Blue” Laurent-Marke intones, “You can’t hold me down anymore.” Perhaps this is her assertion of autonomy, her breaking free of the constraints of the music she made in the past. Whatever the case, The Still Life is an exciting landmark on the musical path of this still-young musician. She has the luxury of time and seemingly endless creativity to continue to make great music long into the future.