Comparing Two Big Bangs: Indie and Rock

Rolling Stone is the old geezer of rock magazines. Whether it’s still relevant is debatable, but it is certainly venerated on a social and, to a lesser extent, critical level. It was and is, in people’s memory, foremost among early rock magazines. Just the words “Rolling Stone” call to mind the music of the late 60s, which the magazine fetishizes to an almost myopic degree; within the top 20 albums on their “500 Greatest Albums List,” 11 are from the 60s (another 2 from the very early 70s). And when we say “the 60s” we really mean ’65-’69, as it was with Rubber Soul that modern rock began to emerge from rock ‘n’ roll.

That that period of five years could produce 11 of the 20 greatest albums of all time may seem inconceivable, but it reveals the meaning behind Rolling Stone’s preoccupation with the late 60s: Rolling Stone concerns itself principally with the development of rock. After all, it was not nearly as interested in Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, or any other rock ‘n’ roller as it was in the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Jimi Hendrix–all early rockers. If we consider that pop, jazz, folk, and classical are the four fundamental musical categories, then rock ‘n’ roll and rock must be separate subcategories of pop.

During the 1970s rock splintered into numerous factions. Of those factions the most instrumental to the next decade were punk, new wave, and post-punk, all products of the late 70s. These genres informed the development of alternative.

One could argue that alternative deserves its own category separate from rock (so that we would now have rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and alternative, not to mention electronic music and hip hop). But alternative developed fluidly from rock; there was no big bang moment, like the ones that had prompted the creation of rock ‘n’ roll and rock. Every 80s alternative band had its roots in previous rock music, despite certainly adding its own unique stuff to the mixture: the Replacements came from punk and rock, Husker Du from hardcore, the Cure from post-punk. REM, the Smiths, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Go-Betweens were all pop acts at heart. By the late 80s, alternative had been established as a definite genre, one which Sonic Youth solidified beyond all shadow of a doubt with 1988’s Daydream Nation. But as a mutation of what had come before, alternative was not in a category all its own.

It wasn’t until ’91, when Nirvana brought alternative to the fore with Nevermind, that a separate category was truly created. Once alternative was mainstream, it was no longer an alternative to anything–instead, it was all over the radio. Almost immediately, there was a retreat by artists “with integrity” back underground. What blossomed then was indie music.
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Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo review

This publication missed Kurt Vile’s excellent Smoke Ring for My Halo when it came out in March. But now that Kurt’s got an EP coming out, I figure it’s as good a time as any to review the album.

The cover of the forthcoming EP, So Outta Reach, shows a bunch of different shots of an unkempt Kurt Vile asleep sitting up in a big armchair at some party, and in each picture somebody has their arm around him and is smiling at the camera. Your first reaction is laughter, but there’s a certain seriousness to the title that makes you unsure. Certainly the songs on Smoke Ring for My Halo suggest a guy sleepwalking through life. In fact, on the final track, “Ghost Town,” Kurt sings, “It’s all right to peel myself up sleepwalking / in a ghost town / Think I’ll never leave my couch again / ’cause when I’m out I’m only in my mind.” Sleepwalking in a ghost town is a perfect image for a guy who says he can “see through everyone, even my own self.”

Kurt Vile’s spaced-out music, drenched in reverb heightens the effect of separation. It’s as though there were a membrane over whatever it is Kurt’s feeling or trying to tell us. Not only that, but he seems torn as to whether he even wants to say what he’s thinking, often saying dark and immediately countering it with some self-effacing joke. For example, in “On Tour,” Kurt sings, “I wanna write my whole life down / burn it down to the ground,” but goes on to laugh, “Nah, I’m just playing, / I got it made”–and then adding uncertainly after a pause, “Most of the time.” It’s like something is holding him back, making him play down his feelings.

Lyrically the album packs a punch. Kurt’s imagery is personal and dark. But because of the casual way it’s delivered, it comes off more as a prolonged whatever than some attempt at profound insight. It’s much better that way. As it is, listening to the album is like talking to some apathetic friend who’s lost his way, come unattached from the earth and started floating around aimlessly. But if Kurt took the songs more seriously, listening to the album might have been like talking to some insufferable know-it-all who was trying to convince you his feelings were mega important.

The album is not perfect. “Puppet to the Man” and “Society Is My Friend,” both the album’s heaviest songs and also the only ones not about him, are a drag. Since “the man” and “society” are two things people love to stick it to, it’s like Kurt Vile’s gotta get those out of the way before he can keep going with the rest of the album. He does give both themes sort of an original spin, I guess, since in “The Man” he readily admits that he’s a puppet to the man, and in “Society” he seems to lose focus before he can even get to his message. All the same, the tracks feel perfunctory, and stick out from the rest of the album.

But overall, it’s an excellent listen, one of the year’s best. As on the cover of So Outta Reach, there’s an ambiguity to it: underneath the casualness, how serious is he about the emptiness, the detachment, even at times what seems like suicidality? Thematically, that’s what’s cool about it, but the best thing is the music and the way he sings.

PG Six – Starry Mind review

Electric folk with subtly complicated jams. Doesn’t really sound of this era, which is part of what makes it interesting–it’s refreshing to listen to an old-sounding record and know that it’s from today. One song is called “Wrong Side of Yesterday.” True, this record sounds more 1960s than 2010s, but it also sounds more San Francisco than New York, which is where he’s from.

“January” is an Irish traditional, but the way they jam on it sounds very much like the Grateful Dead, the quintessential hippie Californian band. This song fits the album’s cover, a landscape scene viewed by some psychedelic somebody dreaming of old English kings and knights. The lady down in front looks like some horny-toad librarian that hallucinations have turned regal and armored.

PG Six spends the entire album with one foot planted amid 21st century ordinary things and the other ankle-deep in trippy, archaic dreamy stuff. “Letter” is about pretty much what it sounds like–“I wrote a letter / to try and speak my peace / to try and set things straight”–while “Palace” details the hanging gardens he and his true love walk through… in his mind, man! It is all awesomely jammy, with the exception of “Days Hang Heavy,” wherein he retreats from the album cover’s green field into his house as it starts to rain, standing in the kitchen by the window and looking out, with only the gray light filtered through the dark clouds. All the songs are good, but that one and “Talk Me Down” are particularly moving.

With psychedelic music the lyrics generally aren’t what’s important, but as with the Grateful Dead, PG Six’s lyrics are full of pleasant surprises that can grab you even if you’re not listening closely. Thematically, the contrast between the psychedelic stuff and the ordinary stuff is cool. It’s as if when his head comes down below the clouds he just can’t latch onto anything substantive enough to fill him up. “Wrong Side of Yesterday” finds him sober, unable to help contemplating the years during which “all the girls I knew [became] strangers.” It is certainly a melancholy album, though you might not guess it just listening to the jams.

Of course, the emphasis here is on the times when he’s feeling low and needs drugs to rise above it. This album isn’t any kind of comment on the long-term effect of psychotropics. It’s just a slice of his life. What he wants to tell us about is his starry mind; the fact that sometimes little messages from his sober self slip in to the story, and that they’re not very happy, isn’t supposed to make us question the rest of the album. Least I don’t think so.

Here’s something interesting: the whole second half is like a come-down. Notice how much softer it ends compared to how it began. The last song is in the same key as the first and has the same guitar tone and everything–clearly it’s meant to be a bookend. But it’s soft and quiet and slightly sad–that’s the progress he’s made over the course of the album.

This is worth a listen if you like psychedelic rock.

Acoustic Alchemy – Roseland review

In 1981, Simon James and Nick Webb formed the instrumental jazz-pop guitar duo Acoustic Alchemy. If you hear the words “instrumental jazz-pop” and want to run and hide, that’s understandable. The truth is, it’s been thirty years, and while change is a given when you’re talking about that kind of time, the duo does still sound stuck in the eighties. Neither of the original members is in it anymore. James left early on, and Webb died in ’98 of pancreatic cancer. Greg Carmichael has been in the duo for years, and Miles Gilderdale became Webb’s replacement in ’96. Acoustic Alchemy’s new album, Roseland, marks its thirtieth anniversary.

As Alex Henderson of AllMusic notes, there’s a line between light and lightweight, and with instrumental jazz-pop that line gets mighty fine. Unashamedly pretty, goofily sonically varied (check out the guitar sound on “Ebor Sound System”), one might even say cheesy, this album is absolutely lightweight. Maybe it’s your dad’s music; more likely it’s your weather channel’s music.

But on a rainy day it’s nice to sit inside with the weather channel on, huh? You’re not watching the channel, you’ve just got it on; what you’re doing is watching the rain. This is cool weather station music, and I like it a lot. Most listeners won’t regard this as anything more than background music, but perhaps some will agree that it’s such nice background music. These songs couldn’t hurt a fly.

Last month I criticized Cosmin TRG’s debut full-length, Simulat, for being soulless, saying it lacked an undercurrent of feeling or humanity. You could easily make the argument that this album lacks the same and that I’m being a biased chump. But at least in my mind this is no generic double-standard. This album sounds good to me because of its resemblance to weather channel music, which, strange as it may seem, calls to mind rainy days at home when I was a kid. Maybe it does something similar for you. Plus, the music is charming in its unassumingness. It doesn’t try to be anything more than pretty.

It’s not just the album’s beautiful songs, like “Templemeads” and “World Stage” that can take the edge off whatever you’re feeling; every song soothes stress and sadness, makes you feel a-okay. In other words, where Simulat lacked humanity, Roseland is almost humanistic.

The Feelies’ recent album, Here Before, had the same feeling as this one. Both were recorded by old pros doing what they love. That neither band’s sound has changed all that much since the eighties isn’t a big deal. That neither album has much of an emotional impact or even a clear focus doesn’t matter. We should just be grateful that these artists are still together and sharing their love and happiness with us.

DRC Music – Kinshasa One Two review

Damon Albarn is best-known as the leader of Blur and then multi-media act the Gorillaz, but he’s also an experienced globe-trotter. In 2002 he put out Mali Music after traveling through that country, recording the music of artists he found along the way, and adding keyboards and drums ‘n’ sich back in London. The result was a surprisingly sedate album that really did sound like Albarn’s take on Mali, not just something Malian or something Albarn. The guy’s got a pretty unique sound, which you can pretty much love or feel indifferent to–don’t think it’s striking enough to inspire hate in anybody. I mean, the Gorillaz, they’re cool, right?

That’s right. Albarn likes synthesizers, particularly when they’re making dark, spooky, or melancholy sounds. That’s evident on every Gorillaz album; collaborations like The Good, The Bad, and the Queen; and now on his second African album, Kinshasa One Two. For this album he and a group of similar-minded producers (some of whom worked with him in the Gorillaz, most notably Dan the Automator) jetted down to Kinshasa, capital of the DR Congo, in search of music. And music they found. But the album they made doesn’t sound as respectful a tribute as Mali Music, and it’s not particularly interesting.

The main sin of Kinshasa One Two is that it strips the Congolese music of its energy without giving anything back, musically. Albarn & Co.’s dark sounds, cool synths, and bass-heavy techno often overpower the found music. Perhaps this might not have been the case had the team stayed longer and allowed more Congolese input into the song structure and production. As it is, tracks like “Hallo” and “Respect of the Rules” sound like Gorillaz songs. “K-Town” is kind of fun, and “Lourds” is a relief because it lets its source material shine. Those tracks buoy the first half, but when the album moves into its back half things get pretty bleak. Not “bleak,” that’s too strong a word–just lame. “We Come from the Forest” benefits from a neat loop, but the loop goes on too long and just can’t support all the wacky synth sounds Albarn & Sons throw at it; once the vocals come in it’s tired and we’re tired too. A few experimental cuts later, “Three Piece Sweet” and “If You Wish to Stay Awake” are techno pieces meant to be energetic, but they glow about as brightly as very old neon signs. “Departure” closes the album, presumably as the producers get on a plane to leave Kinshasa, and there’s nothing African about it–shows what a lasting effect the trip had.

Albarn can be good. I like Blur and some Gorillaz stuff. But sometimes it sounds like he’s phoning it in, as on The Good, The Bad, and the Queen, or else paying somebody to do it for him while he takes a nice nap. Unfortunately this is one of those times. But hey, it’s for a very good cause–all proceeds go to Oxfam to provide relief for Congolese citizens, caught in the crossfire of the deadliest war since WWII. Nice guy, huh?

DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better review

After his awesome, universally acclaimed ’96 debut, Endtroducing, instrumental hip-hop and sampling aficionado DJ Shadow waited six years to release his follow-up, The Private Press.

During those six years his style changed more than it has since or is likely to ever again. No longer was he an “instrumental hip-hop artist”–because screw labels, man–but he wanted to defy classification, pulling in elements from a wider variety of music.

That album’s most notable new element was the guitar, both acoustic and electric. Though its electronic tracks lacked the luster of Endtroducing’s, it sported new kinds of rock songs, and that was sorta cool.

Unfortunately, every Shadow album since has been more of the same. Pseudo-profound quiet number followed by bigass rocker with electric guitars, man, yeah, or else dialogue-heavy instrumental hip hop piece.

Private Press was cool because its songs stood out, not because it had an interesting formula. But his new album, The Less You Know the Better, commits a serious sin. It makes his first two efforts sound bad! Sure, it’s impressive that he gets so many samples from such diverse sources. But what’s really important is the way he uses the samples, and it’s just not to good effect.

As far as the sentimental stuff goes, “I’ve Been Trying” pretty much sounds like a remaster of a song somebody did in the mid-70s, and not a particularly good one. Its followup “Sad and Lonely” lazily samples a cello playing in the wrong damn key, plus unbeautiful “beautiful” vocals. “Give Me Back the Nights” sounds like an advertisement for some lame high school slam poet who somehow convinced Shadow he was edgy.

How about the fast stuff? “Warning Call” is a Killers knock-off with the inspirational line, “It’s cool to be you / when you like what you do.” “Run for Your Life” manages to make a Miles Davis Live-Evil sample sound dumb with the cheesiest sounding “funk” guitar you ever heard. Single “I Gotta Rokk” is exciting at first but wears out its welcome, ending up with only a little more swagger than a Bieber tune.

Throughout the album Shadow recycles a trick: cut out everything except one instrument–bass, guitar, whatever–and then let everything come back in gradually. Can somebody tell me why that’s cool?

What any song on the album has to do with Shadow’s intended message is beyond me, but then, the message is about as buried as Ziggy Stardust’s: according to him, it concerns the inexorable forward march of technology. Shadow thinks you’re either with technology or against it, and if you’re against it you get left in the dust.

Okay, sure. But I ask you–has any concept been more done to death than that?

Four Tet – FabricLive 59 review

Fabric is a London club which, over the past decade, has become world-famous among DJs and fans of house. One of the contributing factors to its increase in notoriety was the 2001 establishment of the Fabric Mix Series. Once a month the club releases a CD showcasing a well-known or emerging DJ. The series alternates every month between the titles fabric and FabricLive, the difference between the two being one of genre: fabric tends to feature more house or techno, whereas FabricLive is more varied and can include anything from indie rock to hip hop to dnb. September’s release, FabricLive.59, is a kind of mixtape from the DJ behind Four Tet, Kieran Hebden.

Hebden’s clearly incredibly knowledgable about the history of IDM. His set is culled from tracks from the 2000s as well as the 90s, and many of those tracks’ artists are quite obscure. For example, track 11, “Flav,” was originally released as a 12-inch in 1999 by an apparently Japanese DJ named Big Bird (who, like many of the artists featured here, is virtually anonymous online). But the version of “Flav” Hebden uses is actually a remix of that track, by an equally obscure London DJ known as Urban Myths. In addition to being mostly unknown, the artists represent a wide variety of styles.

What’s good about Hebden’s mix is that you never get the sense that he’s showing off his knowledge. He allows the songs to speak for themselves, and creates segues between each pair that sound natural and true to what each artist was thinking. He’s selected his songs carefully, adjusting the sound quality and volume of each to meet a certain standard, and arranged them in such an order that they flow well. There’s never a jarring shift in sound or mood. What I like best about the mix is the way it starts up and quiets down. “Fabric,” credited to Four Tet but really just a recording of people talking in the club, and its follow-up, “The Continuing Story of Counterpoint, Part Nine” by minimalist composer David Borden, combine to make a nice little interlude. Together they last just long enough to be a pleasant lull in the action, but not a bore or momentum-killer. The way the intensity comes back after that is subtly handled.

Of course Hebden adds some of his own music to the mix. “Pyramid” and closer “Locked” are by far the longest tracks on the album, and both are new releases. I suspect they’ll be the album’s main draw. They’re both good songs.

All in all Hebden has crafted a loving and tasteful tribute to the unsung artists he loves, many of whose singles he must have found in dusty boxes at the bottom of big piles of dusty boxes in dusty record stores somewhere. It’s worth a listen, and it’ll expose you to some artists you might never have heard of otherwise.

Mogwai – Earth Division EP review

To every modern pop decade its uncreative flab. To the late-60s, surrealistic, musically boring psychedelia. To the mid-70s, witless, castrated soft rock. To the 80s, Madonna- and Prince-rip-offs. And of course the 90s saw the rise of mainstream alternative which prioritized sleekness and profits over subversiveness and emotion. The sound that has dogged that last five years is the lame-brained, tasteless, precious symphonic crap dignified with the name indie. Like Nirvana simultaneously giving new life to and killing alternative, Arcade Fire revitalized baroque pop but also cursed future music listeners. Funeral is full of strings and all that–real beautiful stuff. But that stuff attracted some flies, and those flies won’t buzz off, even though Arcade Fire has moved past the feeling with dignity.

Mogwai are all self-pity and slow songs with long, predictably unpredictable titles (“I Love You, I’m Going to Blow Up Your School”). On their recent Earth Division EP, Mogwai are in particularly bad form. This is all lowest-common-denominator stuff, targeted at those poor souls who hear strings and piano and automatically think, “It must be beautiful.”

“Get to France” sounds like something an untalented college freshman composed for Music 101. The b-section might not sound out of place in one of those quirky, big-budget “indie” movies you’re always hearing about, especially once the guys make the novel and daring decision to include a glockenspiel. Good for them, I guess?

“Hound of Winter” begins with guitar, which gets our hopes up. But then the vocals come in, mourning the loss of “things” and the breakage of “things” over time. Okay, okay, so these lyrics might not be unusable in some other context. Some bands might make em work. But not with this lifeless music, and not in a song with named “Hound of Winter.”

“Drunk and Crazy” is a noise experiment less listenable than “Revolution 9.” Its fast sections are not crazy, and its slow sections (strings again!) are not stirring.

“Does This Always Happen?” starts similarly to “Hound of Winter,” with guitar–only this time it’s clean electric, and it’s high up on the fretboard. Sounds nice. But then the other guys come in. Can you believe your ears? The pianist is feeling the same boredom we are! He can’t help but play whatever the hell he wants! Anyway, the one part repeats and repeats. I suppose the name is supposed to be a joke, but it’s not a good one. We’re left asking the titular question in a way Mogwai probably didn’t intend.

Terrible EP. Don’t buy, don’t listen. It’s been done before and better. Check out Hex by Bark Psychosis.

The Field – Looping State of Mind review

Patience is a virtue, and it’s one that Axel Willner, benevolent minimalist behind Swedish techno act the Field, wants to teach us. His music exists beautifully–it’s so subtle–and that’s why he calls himself “the Field” and not “the City”; he hopes to thwart our hustle-and-bustle impulses and open our eyes and ears to life’s quiet slownesses.

His new album, Looping State of Mind, works well either as foreground or background music. Willner’s songs are careful constructions. To listen is to be captivated by his deliberate development of the music; his additions sometimes emerge gradually, sometimes pop up suddenly, but always come at exactly the right time and do exactly the right thing. Like great pop, his songs seem so natural that they disguise the amount of work that went into crafting them. Willner’s a man in control of his sound board and himself. He never caves in to immediate gratification. In opener “Is This Power,” for example, he’s okay with keeping everything on loop for 68 bars after the bass comes in–and, surprisingly, so are we.

That’s because of the strength of Willner’s melodies and rhythms. No single part calls attention to itself more than it needs to, and yet none is boring or unmemorable. When we press play for a second listen, we’re greeted by familiar sounds which only become more nuanced as we listen closer. More importantly, they work together well. Every time Willner adds a part, or we notice suddenly that he’s been slowly, slowly turning up the volume on a part for the past who-knows-how-many bars, we feel that the song is the better for it. These parts are important and interesting, but there’s nothing conspicuous about ‘em. Imagine sitting across from a field, and listening as some bugs start chirping, other bugs stop, as the wind blows and then stills, and a car passes somewhere nearby.

Perhaps it’s because of its subtlety that the music makes for unobtrusive but pleasant background listening. Musically, Willner doesn’t dabble in pathos–the closest he comes is on the serene “Then It’s White”–and the album maintains a pretty positive mood throughout. Willner wisely accepts that it isn’t settling to make music that’s great for walking to, listening to during work, or just zoning out to. But his hope is to restore some of the patience that hyperactive music, movies, TV, and the Internet have deprived us of. Things move pretty slowly in the field.

Toro y Moi – Freaking Out EP review

Toro y Moi is the stage name of Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick. Since 2001 he’s been recording on his own, but he remained dormant until last year’s Causers of This. The album was dense in sound, overwhelmed by low-end, but dreamy in content, and, like the material of a dream, it slipped away once the record ended. February 2011’s Underneath the Pine found Toro heading in a new direction, complementing his synths with actual drums and guitars; making the music’s dreaminess its focus and not its flaw; and incorporating beautiful, dark chords like you might find in Al Green. It was an interesting and enjoyable record from start to finish, with unusual textures, pleasantly surprising chords, and memorable melodies.

On the success of those two albums and their singles, Toro did some touring, performing for more people than ever before. In a recent video interview with Pitchfork, he said that he had been feeling like doing more upbeat, danceable music, the implication being that he wasn’t happy with his previous relationship with his audience. A lot of times the difference between a concert and a recital (at least in the minds of the performers) lies in the reaction of the crowd. This is especially true of music like Toro y Moi’s, which would require concentration to pull off live and contains limited room for improvisation.

The music off Toro’s new EP, Freaking Out, which came out earlier this September, is sure to suit casual music fans both at concerts and on the dance floor. He’s playing it safe this time around. The music is complex, especially in the rhythm section, but it’s unambitious and, more problematically, unexpressive. In context the EP is interesting–it’s a synthesis of his debut’s electronics and its follow-up’s grooves and dark chords–but considered on its own it’s just okay. The songs are catchy but indistinguishable from one another. Sometimes the music is too busy for its own good.

On Freaking Out, Toro is working solely for his audience, playing the part of the entertainer. EPs are slight by design, so I’m not freaking out, but I hope this is just a one-time, self-consciously conventional excursion from an unconventional musician. People looking for an introduction should check out Underneath the Pine.