So yes, I finished that Flaming Lips review like two weeks ago and fully intended on getting back to my requested reviews the following week. Of course, fate intervened and the AV cable to my shitty Toshiba laptop snapped in half, and with no other cord available (and absolutely no desire to spend I don't know how much money on a new one) I was incapable of listening to any of the requested albums I downloaded some weeks ago - and, obviously, incapable of writing any new reviews.
But then, you know, I finally took action and bought a new computer. And for the past week, despite my iTunes library being completely disorganized, I have been perfectly capable of re-downloading the albums I was going to review this week, listening to them, and - you know - REVIEWING them. But this time, laziness (and Playstation RPGs) intervened, and now here I sit, with no review written. In most cases, this would be the perfect time for me to crack my knuckles, paint over every window in the house with the blackest of black paints, and get some serious work done.
Yes, this would all happen if I were not going to Chicago for a week. Starting tomorrow. And my laptop is not coming with me.
So yeah. No reviews for a little while. But don't fret! While I am gone, I will be listening to music in my leisurely time. So when I am not getting horribly drunk or seeing many Chicago sites or kickin' back with President Barack Obama (he still lives there I am sure) I will be listening to music and working out how I feel about it. Then I will come back in a week and write all those feelings down, just for you!
So have an nice week without me. You deserve one. In the meantime, please enjoy these videos, currently the best videos that are on the internet right now.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
So yes, once again I am delaying my next requested review, which I will take care of next week. If this upsets or surprises you, I don't care because there is a new Flaming Lips album out and if I don't review it soon I am going to drive myself insane!
In all honesty, I have a lot of trouble reviewing records by bands that are very important to me; so many thoughts and emotions bubble to the surface and I want to get them all in my review, but I never do. As such, I never feel that I've said enough and in the end I am not satisfied. So, in that regard, it doesn't get much worse than reviewing Embryonic - not just a new record by the Flaming Lips, a band I consider one of my long-time personal favorites, but one that is seventy minutes long and is easily one of the densest and most complex records they've ever released.
In other words, there is no way I am going to be happy with this review. There are so many things that I am going to forget to say. So I might as well just go with the flow.
I won't bore you with my extensively personal experiences with the Flaming Lips' music. I'll save that for another time. Anybody who knows me well, however, knows that I have been a big fan for a while. And while - not unlike another favorite band of mine, XTC - I have barely ever written about them in this blog, they are written into its very DNA: their 2006 record At War With The Mystics was the first record I ever reviewed in this thing a good three and a half years ago. And it is funny, considering how enthusiastic I am in that review about an album that, in retrospect, did not thrill me - and one that I didn't listen to all that much following its release. Chalk it up to being a younger man in the midst of a year-long rush of euphoric Flaming Lips fandom, I guess, but even back then my reservations about the album - which would become more explicit the more I listened to it - would pop up more than once, like in my summary of "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song":
"My problem here - it's the Flaming Lips trying to sound weird, which they really don't need to do. You're already fucking weird, Wayne. You know it!! You don't need throw random arcade noises and "funny" stuff like that in a song like this to make it sound weird. You couldn't be normal if you tried. But still, it's a cool song that doesn't quite represent the rest of the album."
I was being polite here, because I did not want to admit that I was not satisfied with a Flaming Lips song. Until "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", I felt that the Flaming Lips could do me no wrong, and I wanted to maintain that excitement. But for a moment there, I think I hit the nail on the head: The Flaming Lips, all of the sudden, were trying way too hard to sound weird. And while I stand by that statement, in retrospect I feel the problem ran even deeper than that: worse than weirdness, the Lips were trying to sound cutesy, bubbly, or that dreaded descriptor: quirky. It was indie-quirk pandering, to put it bluntly, and even now it bugs me. It bugged me then, too, but I didn't really know how to put it into words. With Mystics, it felt as if the Flaming Lips - a band known for taking risks and defying audience expectations with each new album - were pandering to a group of people who viewed the Flaming Lips as cutesy, uplifting bunnysuit-wearing happymen who wrote songs for Spongebob Squarepants movie soundtracks. It did not make me happy. (Nothing against Spongebob, but y'know.)
At War With The Mystics did bother me, but - and it's obvious from that review - I still liked it a lot. Because, well, it's not that bad of an album! The whole "we are the crazy quirky Flaming Lips and welcome to our sunshine-and-balloons factory" attitude definitely kills some of the songs' impact ("Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "Free Radicals" being the obvious examples), but the songs that cash in on the Lips' trademark beauty are typically wonderful: "Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," "Vein of Stars," "Sound of Failure," etc. But the one song that still stands out to me - and to a lot of people, I think - is "Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung," an echo-laden bass-driven prog epic that is still one of the most exciting tracks they've ever recorded. That song, unlike everything else on Mystics, sounded like the Lips pushing themselves into something new and great, and as I said at the time: "If the Lips ever did a straight-up prog-rock album in the style of this track I have no doubt it would be fucking awesome."
And so. Now we have Embryonic. I could get all prophetic and congratulate my 18-year-old self for accurately predicting what the next Flaming Lips release would sound like, but that would not be right because none of Embryonic's eighteen tracks sound a whit like "Pompeii." To be honest, in terms of attitude and structure, Embryonic has no obvious forebear in anything the Flaming Lips have released previously, which I think is giving people a lot of trouble. Most Embryonic reviews I've read have people attempting to compare it to some other album they've done, or - more frequently - touting it as a "back to basics" album, returning to the reckless spirit of pre-Soft Bulletin releases like Telepathic Surgery or Priest Driven Ambulance. This confuses me, because let me tell you, Embryonic sounds nothing like their older stuff. Their 80's records were more psychedelic and fractured, to be sure, but even their darkest and noisiest moments were always leavened with pretty acoustic guitar ballads and a goofy sense of humor (why else would Priest Driven Ambulance end with a sincere, noisy cover of "What A Wonderful World"?). If the Flaming Lips wanted to record a "back to basics" album, they would have ditched the widescreen studio production, returned to the two-guitars-bass-and-drums setup of their early 90's work, and let the guitar noise rip. And that's not what they do on Embryonic.
So why are people so quick to compare Embryonic to those records? Well, you see, Embryonic is a dark record - much darker than the musical therapy of The Soft Bulletin, the brooding yet lovely Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and especially the in-your-face cutesiness of Mystics. So, of course, the most obvious conclusion people can make is that Embryonic is a return to their pre-Soft Bulletin records, a knee-jerk reaction that simply isn't true. Embryonic is the darker than those albums too, and is just about the darkest record the Flaming Lips have ever released.
Now, I should clarify that statement (and I should also start talking about what Embryonic sounds like considering I've spent too many paragraphs talking about what it doesn't). The Flaming Lips, even in their most uplifting moments, have always had a dark undercurrent to their work - a recognition of mortality, the inevitability of life and death and whathaveyou. Clouds Taste Metallic, one of their happiest albums, featured a song called "Evil Will Prevail." Soft Bulletin, probably the most uplifting thing they could possibly record, ends with a song called "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." Yoshimi's "Do You Realize??," the other most uplifting thing they could possibly record, has really fucking depressing lyrics (not to mention that it is followed up by the defeatist anthem "All We Have Is Now"). But these records, despite the aforementioned moments of depression, offered an answer to life's worries: "Hey man, it's okay! Life can be tough - real tough - but everybody's gotta go through it! We'll all go through it together, and we'll all be okay!"
Embryonic doesn't have these answers. It is not designed to give you a hug and make you feel OK - instead it buries you deep, deep down into the murk and never pulls you back up. The only song on here where Wayne Coyne sings like the Wayne Coyne we all know and love is "Evil," a song that could probably fit comfortably on Yoshimi with its warm electronics. But it's a trick, see - "Evil"' leads directly into "Aquarius Sabotage," which immediately attacks the listener with manic drums, screeching guitars and an unsettling bass line. "The Impulse," which might have been one of the prettiest songs on the album, is marred by Wayne's creepy vocoder-processed vocals. "I Can Be A Frog," which could have been a cutesy joke song on Mystics, features vintage horror-movie backing music and Karen O making a bunch of creepy animal noises. While Embryonic is just as lavishly produced as their last few albums, it exploits their sonic palette in a much darker way, making every potentially peaceful moment sound sinister, unsettling, and uncomfortable. There is no "Do You Realize??"-esque moment of release - it's all downhill.
And Embryonic's darkest tracks? Hoo-ee. "See The Leaves," with its overpowered drums, bendy bassline and unwelcoming Wayne Coyne vocals, has to be one of the darkest songs they've ever done. You remember Mystics' "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion"? With Wayne warning against those pessimistic folks who "see the sun go down, but don't see it rise"? Well, let's sample some lyrics from "See The Leaves": "See the leaves / They're dying again / See the moth / It's flying again / See the grass / It's dying again / See the sun / It's trying again." Well well. So much for optimism! The jerky psych-rock album opener "Convinced Of The Hex" continues this darker trend, as does the bass-driven tribal chanting of "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" (is that Wayne singing lead on that, by the way? If it is, Jesusss) and the formless murk of "Gemini Syringes," featuring echo-laden Wayne vocals and a monologue from German mathematician Thorsten Wormann on what I assume to be the nature of the universe. At times these songs can feel formless, murky, and incomprehensible, but they all manage to sound cohesive in the context of the album, which is no small feat.
I'll be honest - upon first listen, Embryonic was just so downtrodden and long that I did not manage to get all the way through it. To be fair, I was just streaming it casually off of Colbernation.com, and it was like 3 in the morning, so the circumstances were not ideal. But it does show that Embryonic is an album that requires a few listens, 'cause there's a whole lot here to absorb, which might be a bit much if you're not a diehard fan. But when it comes right down to it - and forgive me for generalizing - Embryonic is just cool. It can be a little dark and draggy, yes, but it's all worth it for songs like the pulsating groover "Silver Trembling Hands," the epic power rock of "Worm Mountain" (featuring MGMT, apparently), or the remarkable album closer "Watching The Planets," one of their most apocalyptic songs to date. Considering that these guys are not getting any younger (or, in Wayne Coyne's case, pushing 50), it is great to hear them still pushing the boundaries of their music and trying new things, at the risk of alienating the mainstream audience they have built up over the past decade. Mystics had me worried that they were running out of ideas; Embryonic, thankfully, has proven me wrong.
In preparation for this review I have spent the last few weeks listening through every Flaming Lips album since 1986's Hear It Is (with the exception of Zaireeka, which I will get to soon I am sure). I was a nice reminder that I seriously love this band, and that Mystics is the only record they have put out that leaves a bad taste in my mouth - and even that one is pretty good. I am happy about Embryonic's critical success but I am a little upset that people are using it as an opportunity to diss on Bulletin and Yoshimi in the same breath as Mystics, which has happened in a few reviews I've read. Let's get this straight: The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots are wonderful albums that everybody liked upon their release, and for good reason. Embryonic is practically as good as they are but for completely different reasons. What I'm trying to say is, if you're going to diss on a recent Flaming Lips album, make it Mystics. That one actually deserves it.
One last thought before I finish this and never ever talk about the Flaming Lips again until their next album comes out - and maybe this will give you a better impression of what this album is like, considering that I have done a less than adequate job of describing these songs to you. I was a little worried before I heard Embryonic, 'cause you know, their last album was Mystics and I wasn't sure what it would sound like. And what worried me especially was the fact that there were guest artists on a Flaming Lips album! That ain't never happened before! I mean - two songs with Karen O? I half-expected some lame quirky duet between her and Wayne to clog up the proceedings here. But man - if you're going to have guest artists on an album, you gotta do it like Embryonic. Karen O's vocals just add a creepy texture to her songs rather than overpowering them, and MGMT's appearance on "Worm Mountain" just make it even more brutal. Hell, you can barely tell they're there, but they make the songs cooler!! It's a good album, guys. Check it out.
So that'll do it. Next week, I promise, will be a requested review - two albums in one, actually! So check that out. As for the Flaming Lips, I may end up doing a career-summary post for them sometime in the future, considering I just sat through all of their albums and have so so many thoughts about them. I'll probably do what I did for that Radiohead overview from like a year ago and just recommend a bunch of tracks from each album that I like. Sound good to you? Sounds good to me.
(Also a quick note: if you have just listened through Embryonic and are wondering out-loud to yourself "Jeez, where CAN these guys go from here??," the answer may surprise you.)
Friday, October 09, 2009
Sad news this week: due to a computer hiccup, I do not have access to my music, and as such I do not have access to the requested albums I was planning on reviewing this week: the Smiths' Strangeways Here We Come and Morrissey's Viva Hate, both requested by my good friend Paul Grigas. Tragedy! Fortunately, other good friend Emily Vasseur has adopted my shitty laptop and I will probably be able to get it back without erasing my hard drive. So this is a good thing. Whenever I do get it back, I promise you that requested review post haste.
In the meantime, let's talk about another record that has enchanted me over the past couple months - Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina by the Left Banke, which despite its misleading title actually has more than two songs on it! There are nine other tracks besides those two classics and they are mostly all good. If you don't know anything about the Left Banke, they were a 60's pop-rock group mostly known for epitomizing the "baroque pop" genre - that his, pop music with a whole lot of harpsichord and strings thrown in there. At least, that's the Left Banke definition. Keep in mind that this music sounds little to nothing like the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson style of baroque pop recorded around the same time ('66-'67), with super-complicated song structures and vocal arrangements and whathaveyou. The songs on Walk Away Renee aren't even heavily influenced by classical music, at least not to me - they're just pop songs with a whole lotta harpischord.
Thankfully, they're really good pop songs! Great, even. "Walk Away Renee," obviously, is the classic and the biggest hit, good enough to be covered - with equal greatness - by the Four Tops a couple years later. "Pretty Ballerina" is the other hit, one of their prettiest and most alluring songs, defined by Steve Martin Caro's plaintive vocals. There's also "She May Call You Up Tonight," my favorite Left Banke song and one of the best songs ever. It's a wonderful, catchy pop tune driven by a jazzy piano - like Vince Guaraldi or something. If nobody sang on it it would sound like "Linus and Lucy" or something. But man, the vocals are so CATCHY! It's a great song, and the entire reason I got into the Left Banke in the first place, thanks to Adam Spektor playing it on his radio show.
It's not very "baroque," though. Actually, a lot of songs on here aren't baroque in the slightest! It's funny, 'cause if you listen to songs like "Barterers And Their Wives" or "Shadows Breaking Over My Head" these guys sound like the most polite and reserved rock band that has ever existed. But THEN, you've got songs like "Evening Gown," a peppy harpsichord-driven rocker (??) with Steve Martin Caro almost YELPING his vocals, and "Lazy Day" which features an actual FUZZ GUITAR! Like some kind of NUGGET or something! But that's not even the weirdest part - "What Do You Know"? It's a COUNTRY ROCK SONG. Like "What Goes On" by the Beatles or something. Twangy guitars and everything. Lead guy sings like Ringo Starr all the sudden. HOW IS THIS BAROQUE IN ANY WAY YOU IDIOTS.
So yeah, the random stylistic diversions are unusual and unexpected, ESPECIALLY if you've only heard "Walk Away Renee" and "Pretty Ballerina." They aren't bad songs, though. And the ones that aren't whacky diversions are simply beautiful songs that deserve all of this world's love. Mysterious, subdued, yet accessible pop music - it's all here!
Oh, one more thing about the Left Banke. Michael Brown, their pianist and main songwriter - the guy that wrote every great song on here - was sixteen at the time. Sixteen!! Man, what were you and I doing at age sixteen? I was playing "Enter The Matrix" on Gamecube and writing Mega Man X fanfiction. This guy was writing "Walk Away Renee." Sheesh.
That's it for now. I am waiting for my comptuer to return to me, and once that happens you will be getting two things: 1) more requested reviews, and 2) a review of the new Flaming Lips album! Oh man it's a good one! I am actually gonna wait on the latter there until the album is officially released, just to be fair and decent, but that's coming up pretty soon anyway so I am not worried. Enjoy your weekend!
Saturday, October 03, 2009
Ohhh folks. We've got a scorcher for you tonight. This here review has been requested by none other than a living legend - my freshmen year college roommate Nick Hennessey!
Now, OK. In a perfect world Mr. Hennessey would need absolutely no introduction - you would simply see his name and nod to yourself in instant approval, a Pavlovian response to his inimitable genius. But sadly, we do not live in this world, so I will explain. I lived with Mr. Hennessey for a year, and what a trailblazing year that was. Before college I was a nascent waif of an eighteen-year-old, with my only known methods of "partying down" being reading Final Fantasy VIII guidebooks and drinking Mountain Dew Code Red by the liter. A year with Mr. Hennessey changed all that - and when he wasn't busy introducing me to the pleasures of hard liquor and fast women, he was blasting great music into my face every morning noon and night, whether I was prepared for it (read: awake) or not. The list of bands he turned me on to that year - most of which are now among my favorites - is pretty startling: you got your Undertones, your Replacements, your Wilco, your Beach Boys, your Smiths, your Television... the list goes on and on. And it wasn't just music - the guy showed me the British Office for the first time, too. Yes, that British Office! The one that is like my favorite show now. Mr. Hennessey's taste surely knows no bounds.
So yes. Along with close high school bros Luke Coryea and Adam Spektor, Nick Hennessey is one of those indispensible "threw a lot of great music at me all at once when I was a teen'ger" sorts of dudes. A solid guy. And yes, the album he requested for me tonight is one by none other than the biggest band he got me into during my freshmen year - XTC! One of my favorite bands ever thanks to him, and unusually enough, a band that I have not discussed in this blog even a single time. And I have been writing in this blog for, what, almost four years now? Yikes.
Now, mind you, I had been planning on reviewing an XTC album here for quite a long while - my all-time favorite, 1999's Apple Venus Vol. 1. However, the album Mr. Hennessey has requested of me is 1981's Black Sea, a completely different sort of album by what might as well be a completely different sort of band. While Apple Venus is a studied, graceful record by a band in their waning days, Black Sea is a twisted, guitar-driven slice of kinda-sorta-New Wave with a kooky lead singer. It's one the last albums the band made before lead singer/songwriter Andy Partridge developed some unfortunate stagefright and kept the band in the studio for, you know, the rest of their career. So here on this album you've got the sound of a live band: pounding drums, screechy guitars, forceful vocals, and so forth (I guess there's a bass in there too). At this point XTC were definitely more Devo-sounding than the Beatles/Beach Boys pastiches of their later work - nearly every song here sounds like, you know, something is horribly wrong. But in a good way!
There are differences in vocal delivery as well. Andy Partridge, in comparison with his more pop-friendly late 80s/early 90s vocals, sounds straight-up frightened in these songs, his voice teeming with wild teenage awkwardness. At this point in his career he did not feel the need to make his voice sound "accessible" in any sort of way - he just sounded like a yelping, nervous man, and he was all the better for it. Then there is the George Harrison-esque Colin Moulding, who at this point in his career had the exact same voice that he would have for the rest of his career, and was also all the better for it. He's a great vocal counterpoint; whereas Partridge sounds like he has something broken deep inside of him, Moulding sings like a nice, charming Britishman, no matter what song he is singing. "Generals and Majors" is an obvious war satire, to be sure, but with Moulding's straight-up adorable vocals it doesn't feel bitter in the slightest. Just fun!! Hey, that's XTC.
Enough with this. Let's talk about the songs, because those are the most important things on a record album, are they not? The first two tracks here are two of the best two XTC tracks ever, all two of them. Andy's screechy tune "Respectable Street" and Colin's aforementioned jaunty "Generals and Majors" both border on experimental dub-influenced New Wave, but are really just great pop songs: why else would the former include those "Oooh-eyy-oooh-eyy-oooh-oooh!"s in the verses, and why else would the latter feature one of the catchiest little guitar riffs EVER?? Yes, yes the answer is obvious. These guys were raised on the finest 60's pop, and it shows. It doesn't let up from there - if anything, things get a little more exploratory, and a little weirder. You've got Andy's hammy vocal delivery in "Living Through Another Cuba," those loopy phaser effects in the piano-driven "Rocket From A Bottle," more super-catchy poppiness with the classic "Towers of London" - the fun does not end, not ever! And while pretty much every other song on here is written by Partridge, the one other track Moulding has - the cutesy, riff-driven "Love At First Sight" - is a real keeper that you'll want to hear. These guys are good.
Oh, no no, I'm not done describing songs yet! "Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me)" is a goofy little song that I used to not like much but has grown on me over the years. It popped up in Hot Fuzz and man that was a good movie, wasn't it? And this is a good song, featured in that good movie. Admittedly "No Language In Our Lungs" and "Burning With Optimism's Flames" have never been my absolute favorites but I like them pretty good. Oh, and man, how about those two atmospheric tracks that do not sound like conventional songs at all?? I used to not like those much either but they sound so much cooler to me now. To be fair, "Paper And Iron (Notes And Coins)" isn't that atmospheric, but it does start off with that echoey guitar effect that always makes me swoon like a man. And then there's the album closer "Travels in Nihilon" which I just now realized is like the neatest album closer ever. Those tribal drums! That uncharacteristically creepy Andy Partridge vocal delivery! Those vocal-echoing guitars in the chorus! The fact that it doesn't get boring even a little bit for a full seven minutes!! Oh maaan. That's a good song. Sadly, after '82 they would never write another song like it ever, and where does that leave us? (Not a rhetorical question. I need the answer to this.)
I think a lot of people might have trouble with Andy Partridge's voice. If there was any point of contention anybody could have with early XTC, it is that. He just doesn't have a pretty voice! Not yet, anyway. Even when they write a pretty tune, he does not want to sing it in a pretty way. For me, that makes it sound a whole lot more interesting, but for others it might just sound ugly (and it does kinda sound ugly to me too, but hey, I'm a forgiving man). And sometimes he can get a little hammy or over-wordy. But what can you do? The guy was a great songwriter. I don't know if I can recommend this as a "First XTC Album" - you might want to ease in with their poppier late 80's stuff, I don't know. I don't know how you feel about all this, readers. I don't know what music you like. If you're an ELO fan, check out their later stuff. If you're a Talking Heads fan, check out this one. It 'twill not disappoint.
Thank you for reading, True Believers. As a gift for you, I will present you with nary a slice of Nick Hennessey's genius: the classic "Fresh Lettuce," performed as his rappin' alter-ego Pauley Boom:
Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.