Monday, July 26, 2010
A memo to 90% of modern indie bands making feeble, "post-ironic" attempts at dance-pop: Kylie Minogue has you beat. By a long shot. This is everything pop music should be - over-the-top synths, insistent beats, cliched lyrics, and overwhelmingly catchy hooks. With Minogue there's no hint of the obnoxious self-awareness that poisons so many wannabe dance bands circa 2010. No painful falsettos, no "hilariously quirky" 8-bit sound effects, no pointlessly wordy lyrics - just simple, fun pop music. Minogue isn't putting on an act, here; this is what she does, what she's always done. And she does it well.
Kylie Minogue has been recording pop music for a solid two decades, and she is somehow recording music in her 40s that is substantially better than anything she did in her 20s. Which is kind of ridiculous, when you think about it; she's like a bizarro Madonna, or something. Before this year's Aphrodite, I had only (VERY recently) heard a couple of Minogue's other records: 2000's Light Years and 2001's Fever, both chock-full of fantastic millennial disco-pop that I felt guilty having missed out on for so many years (as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of early 2000s pop, this was especially hurtful). These records made two things abundantly clear: one, Kylie Minogue knows good pop music; two, Kylie Minogue cares about making her records consistent, which isn't even necessary. She could've just put out a bunch of great singles and filled the rest of her records with filler pap like every other teen pop act out there, but instead Light Years and Fever are so impressive front-to-back that even the lesser tracks feel like they belong.
Aphrodite continues this trend, but things are a little different. As great as Light Years and Fever were, they indulged in over-the-top campiness so thoroughly that they came perilously close to ironic jokiness (Light Years especially). I don't get that vibe from Aphrodite; it sounds more forceful, more committed. Not to mention that it's less of a disco record and more of a synth-pop one, which I guess is emblematic of the year it was recorded. Where Light Years came out during the "DISCO IS COOL AGAIN!" era, Aphrodite is here in the midst of the "80s DANCE IS COOL AGAIN!" era, so it treads dangerous ground. A cynic might accuse Minogue of playing catch-up with the likes of Lady GaGa and La Roux, and they may be right. But it doesn't matter, 'cause Aphrodite is better than both.
Oh ho, I could prattle on and on about the songs this record. I could! So I will. I love Aphrodite because it does not waste a second. The first word you hear is "DANCE," and it does not let up from there. "All The Lovers," "Get Outta My Way," "Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love)" - impossible not to dance to. You will dance to them. If you think you won't, you are wrong! "Everything Is Beautiful" you might not dance to, though, because it is a ballad. But you might anyway. "Better Than Today" is a great pop song. Even if a couple tracks during the second half aren't as good as the rest, the record ends with "Looking For An Angel" and "Can't Beat The Feeling," two of the best tracks here. It's 43 minutes long and nearly flawless. You can't ask for anything more from a pop album.
Honestly, Aphrodite is nothing new or shockingly original. It probably could have been recorded a decade ago. And nobody's saying Kylie Minogue is a fantastic vocalist or anything - I imagine her cutesy cooing is probably really annoying to some people - but she knows how to deliver these songs, and that's all that matters. I won't deny for a second that my intense love of this record isn't completely personal; Aphrodite embodies all of the great dance music I grew up with, delivered without apology or condescension. It gives off that irresistible feeling of the perfect all-night party, one that could never possibly exist. In layman's terms, I feel like this record was made just for me, and that is a feeling that cannot be taken for granted.
OK, I feel like I'm losing myself here, so how's this for a comparison: Aphrodite is like if the Backstreet Boys' last record didn't completely suck after the first four songs. Because I know all of you out there spent $19.99 on a copy of that record immediately upon its release, and as such know exactly what I'm talking about.
Right? Right! Wasn't "PDA" such a stupid fucking song?? I knowww.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Oho, so here I am, writing about R.E.M. again. I have been listening to so SO much new music recently, and yet all I have to show for it is a review of an album - and a band - that I have loved since the beginning of time. Way to work outside of your comfort zone, Rose.
But I have an excuse! Today's record, 1985's Fables Of The Reconstruction, was just recently re-released - and, thankfully, it is getting a whole slew of long-deserved positive press. This is good news, considering that Fables tends to be the one early R.E.M. record that is continually ignored, even by diehard fans; not only was it sandwiched uncomfortably between Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant, but the band was not at all happy with the record by most accounts, and fans decided to follow their lead by not even bothering to hear it. Which is pretty dumb, when you think about it. Didn't XTC hate Skylarking for a while? Like, their most celebrated and beloved album? Yeah.
Bands are stupid.
Guess R.E.M. got over it, though, considering that they perform Fables tracks in concert all the time now. So we can all stop being so dumb. Fables holds a unique position in R.E.M.'s discography for a few reasons: one, it's the band's first concept album, with a set of songs exploring legends of the rural South; two, it's the last album of R.E.M.'s elliptical early years, before Lifes Rich Pageant turned them into an arena-rock band; and third, it's possibly their darkest album, the inverse of Reckoning's summertime-fun college rock. The latter point is probably the main reason so many people have trouble with Fables - it takes the least accessible traits of R.E.M.'s first two albums and magnifies them, pushing Michael Stipe's vocals even further back into the mix and drenching every track in moody guitar murk. Just a comparison of opening tracks makes these differences clear: where Murmur and Reckoning kicked off with radio-friendly college rock anthems, Fables opens with the clangy guitars of "Feeling Gravitys Pull," a song so unfriendly it sounds almost like it was designed to push the listener away.
This was my Fables dilemma, for a while. Lifes Rich Pageant has long been my favorite 80s R.E.M. record, and Fables is almost its exact opposite in every conceivable way; I just didn't know how to approach it. But Fables is a record that rewards (or, in some cases, requires) multiple listens, revealing itself to be possibly R.E.M.'s finest exercise in establishing mood and drawing the listener in. Individual tracks might not be as catchy or ingratiating as Murmur's and Reckoning's, but neither of those records could boast a sound as all-engulfing as "Maps And Legends"'s foreboding jangle, or "Auctioneer (Another Engine)"'s disarming chorus. If Reckoning felt like a lovely drive through the neighborhood, Fables feels like a dirt-road slog in the dead of night, where everything is obscured and nothing is certain.
But despite all that murkiness, this is still an early-period R.E.M. record through and through, full of gorgeous melodies, Peter Buck guitar jangling and Mike Mills/Bill Berry harmonies. Most fans probably already know "Driver 8," even if they haven't heard Fables - it's one of their best and most popular early singles - but there are so many worthy album tracks here it's ridiculous. My personal favorite, "Green Grow The Rushes," is one of Peter Buck's finest moments, a winding tapestry of folk-rock guitar beauty. It's got an environmental message, but one so thoroughly packaged in melodious songcraft that it never comes across as preachy or obnoxious - it's a should-be R.E.M. classic, is what I'm trying to say. The dramatic echo of tracks like "Life And How To Live It" and "Good Advices" give the record a palpable sense of energy (the latter featuring the immortal Stipe lyric "When you meet a stranger / look at his shoes / keep your money in your shoes"), while "Kohoutek" and "Old Man Kensey" revel in that creepy Old South vibe. And, of course, there are the two great tracks that are completely at odds with the mood of the record: the goofy horn-driven "Can't Get There From Here," the earliest inkling that R.E.M. actually had a sense of humor, and the understated country ballad of "Wendell Gee" that closes the album on an unusually friendly note.
Oh, also worth noting: if you love Mike Mills counterpoint harmony vocals, Fables is going to make you a very happy man. They are all over this fucking thing. "Can't Get There From Here" is maybe the best example, but "Maps And Legends" and "Wendell Gee" benefit greatly from his presence. God, I love that guy.
Man, there is no better time to get into Fables. It is an excellent portrait of a band at the peak of their powers, delivering one more moody masterpiece before diving headlong into the mainstream. I wouldn't recommend it for newbie R.E.M. fans - it's a little too uninviting - but dedicated listeners have no excuses. Give in.
To close things out, here's a fun live performance that answers the eternal question: "What if R.E.M.'s classic, outspoken anthem 'Fall On Me' sounded like a track from Chronic Town?" Here is your answer:
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
I have always been a Danger Mouse fan. I have never been a Shins fan. So when I heard that Danger Mouse recorded an album with the Shins guy, I was all like "ehhh I dunno, man" and decided not to listen to it.
But then I listened to it and realized that, hey, it's pretty good and I like it! Man, what a twist.
See now, I was embellishing a bit when I said "I have never been a Shins fan." What I meant to say was "I heard a few of their songs here and there, wasn't crazy about them, and made a concerted effort to not bother with any of their studio releases as a result. Also, fucking Garden State, jesus christ." Which, you know, is a completely unfair judgment. And now I'm thinking - if James Mercer is just as bearable on all those Shins albums as he is here, maybe I should give them a chance? Yes. Maybe I should.
I mean, I could say Danger Mouse is the only reason I like this record, but that wouldn't be right either. Mercer's voice is all over this thing, for one. I always pinned Mercer's vocals as too introverted and dull for my tastes ("New Slang," for one, which features one of the most bored vocal deliveries I have ever heard), but on Broken Bells he really sounds like he cares, which is a definite plus. He and Danger Mouse make for a surprisingly compatible duo: Mercer writes a bunch of pretty, mournful low-key tunes, and Danger Mouse bathes them in the atmospheric electronics that are his signature. The best thing I can say about Broken Bells is that it reminds me of my personal favorite DM production, Gorillaz' Demon Days; like that album, it indulges in a sweet electronic haze, but doesn't sound meandering or self-indulgent.
At least, for the most part. Some of the songs on Broken Bells' second half don't thrill me too much (a little too Shins-y, I guess?). But there are a lot of cool things going on here. My personal favorite track would have to be "Your Head Is On Fire," which somehow manages to evoke all the splendor of a Pet Sounds instrumental without being completely obnoxious, a nearly impossible feat nowadays. There's also the cool dark electronics of "Vaporize" and "October," the expansively pretty opener "The High Road," and "The Mall & Misery" which manages to beat Phoenix at their own sordid little pop-rock game.
I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Broken Bells' big hit single, "The Ghost Inside," which I was not fond of upon first listen but I now accept as a decently funky track. Here is my thing: I have a real problem with indie rock white dudes trying to be funky. I think it is a stupid, obnoxious trend that needs to end as soon as possible. Not that I don't think white dudes can be funky - if the Bee Gees can, who can't? - but in recent years it sounds to me like a mocking, self-important stab at relevance by a bunch of clueless white-boy Prince fetishists. It's silly, empty posturing. So when I first heard Mercer's over-the-top falsetto on "The Ghost Inside," my immediate reaction was to pause the track, rest my face in my hands and squeeze until I went numb. But soon I realized, hey! It's pretty much a Gorillaz song! And that falsetto, Damon Albarn does that a whole lot, doesn't he? So it would be pretty hypocritical of me to demonize "The Ghost Inside." It's good, and it's the only song on here featuring Mercer's funkmaster highvoice, so I can't get too mad at him.
So there you are. I like Broken Bells. You will, too, if you like Danger Mouse. And the Shins, I guess. I wouldn't know.
As for the "I hate funky indie rock dudes," that is a subject that will pop up again in the near future, I can assure you. Whether you like it or not.