Friday, May 31, 2013

In Revue: "Trouble Will Find Me"- The National

"Is it time to leave? Is it time to think about what I want to say to the girls at the door?" National singer Matt Berninger wonders aloud in his rich ashen voice near the end of Trouble Will End highlight "Don't Swallow the Cap." Though backed by a propulsive drum-beat from Bryan Devendorf, the song feels like it's encased in amber. Berninger's frozen still, icicles of "careful fear and dead devotion," clinging to his skin. He'll never leave, transfixed by the "bright white heaven," hanging over.

Penning a song about being stuck in place and unable to move is a sly acknowledgement on the National's part of their status in some circles as a band forever running in place. The old cliché of if you've heard one, you've heard them all comes to mind. It's always bothered me when bands of this caliber take flack for being "too reliable," a constantly shifting foundation would be ill-suited for a home, and the same can be said of a band like the National. They've slowly perfected their blueprint over six albums, and have no need to throw them out now.

The crawling "Heavenfaced" is a terrific example of this. Beginning with a pensive piano part, Berninger is standing still again, this time committing himself to another. "I could walk out, but I won't" develops into a mantra, as an unobtrusive drum beat and ringing guitar chords come in from the cold to keep Berninger company. Eventually the calm waters of the song crest into one wave the band rides off into the night. Midpoint "This Is the Last Time" is another instance, starting with Berninger and a guitar, before being enveloped by the rest of the band. Here again, Berninger sings of a place where entrapment is easy, in this case a swamp (a self-referential nod to the band's Alligator LP). "And I said I wouldn't get sucked in," Berninger sings with a tinge of self-defeat. The song is the sort-of inner monologue any one in a foundering romance has ever performed. The effete declaration of "I can't take this anymore," inevitably traded in for "we owe it to each other to make it work." By the time Berninger sings of the "thoughts" encased in his mind, he's officially sunk, and trouble has caught up again.  

"Graceless" meanwhile is musically stuck in the past; you could be forgiven if the bass figure and sepulcher vocals remind you of Joy Division's "Disorder." It's an appropriate reference point for a band that's dealt in crawling numbers for years now. On that track, Ian Curtis sang of "waiting to feel the pleasures of a normal man," but here Berninger is doing his best to dull any sensation. The "balance" between pain and pleasure is untenable, and he's searching for a powder or pill to settle the score. When "the waiting" becomes unbearable it's easy to run away, to take "the easy way out," and Berninger embraces that shortcut. Not out of cowardice, but out of self-preservation for the shard of himself that still remains. 

Running away is the motif of the sullen "Slipped," Berninger in another city to put distance between himself and a former flame. It registers as a late night phone-call, summarizing the ups and downs of a relationship, and surmising what went wrong. The promise of "I'll be a friend and a fuck-up and everything. But I'll never be anything you want me to be," is a miniature triumph, the one piece of self-defense in a puzzle of resignation. Near the song's end, Berninger makes one final plea, "I don't want you to grieve, I just want you to sympathize all right. I can't blame you for losing your mind for a little while, so did I." If hindsight is 20/20, then this is the moment of absolute clarity.

On closer "Hard to Find" Berninger wonders if the glow of an old love can be found in the night sky. He's looking back again, scanning for that light that once lit up the darkness. Rather than track it down he calls it quits, remembering the times when it all burned just a bit too bright. Finally, the lyrical summation of the album arises when he admits "we're still waiting for the ease to cover what we can't erase." Sometimes when the existential dread that comes with fitting in, failed relationships, doubt, and depression becomes life-threatening, the only way to survive… is to wait.   



Saturday, May 25, 2013

In Revue- "Random Access Memories"

"There used to be a time where people that had means to experiment would do it, you know? That's what this record is about," Thomas Bangalter (one-half of the robotic duo) said in a recent interview with GQ. Bangalter couldn't provide a more apt summation of what he and masked partner-in-crime Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have achieved on this their 4th studio album. It's an experimentation that does more than re-contextualize the duo for a new generation; it provides a portal into a past that Bangalter and de Homem-Christo idealize for some 70-plus minutes on Random Access Memories

Cue the time-machine up for the mid-1970s as the prog-rock indulgences of "Give Life Back to Music" come spilling forth from the stereo. It's an intro better suited to ELP or Genesis than it is to Daft Punk, but a groove soon emerges from the cacophonous swell as the duo sets the stage in a sci-fi discotheque. The group is on record as saying they sought a "West-Coast vibe," for the album, and the laconic guitar line on the opener is emblematic of that breeziness. Collaborator Nile Rogers (of Chic fame) is a big-part in evoking that time and place. And all of Daft Punk's shifting vocoder vocals can't corrode the vibrant snapshot Rogers captures with his disco-indebted guitar work. 

The process of humanizing electronic music is something the duo attempted (to mixed results) on 2005's Human After All, Bangalter calling the record "an attempt to discover where human feelings reside in music." But while that album skirted around the notion of real-life, this one dives head first into what defines humanity. The luscious "The Game of Love" is easily the most subdued number Daft Punk has ever attempted; a break-up song as rendered by a heartbroken robot, with swipes of pedal steel guitar giving the song an ethereal quality. The same lost soul roaming the streets on "The Game of Love" reappears on "Within." The soul is still trapped, like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner searching for meaning in a massive world, "please tell me who am I," the plea. “Within” is little more than solo-piano (provided by Chilly Gonzales) and a light pitter-patter of drums. It's their own mechanical formula for a soul-song; Sam Cooke for the Year 2525.

Not every moment on record registers absolute zero on the pop scale, "Lose Yourself to Dance" is white-hot and one of two songs on the album featuring an indelible performance from Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams. Pharrell's always been a gifted vocalist, employing a silky-croon to ensure a hook's resident status in your brain. But on Random Access Memories, he's less about flash and more about function, playing the supporting role in Daft Punk's reconfiguring of a disco groove. The pairing's second song, the joyous "Get Lucky" is an immediate highlight and deserving of the current success its seeing on the Billboard charts. The first time I heard the track I was incredulous as to its Daft Punk status, and even now it's hard to believe. It’s as immediate as previous highlight's "Da Funk," "One More Time," or "Harder Better Faster Stronger," but more pop-conscious and dare I say sexier. If Daft Punk intended to dip into the past with this record, then "Get Lucky" is unquestionably its bedroom jam. 

No "experimental" album purporting to pay tribute to 70s & 80s popular music would be complete without its own epic and centerpiece "Touch" is just that. The search for belonging appears again on the track, with Paul Williams searching for "something more" in a voice that shows all of his 73 years. The song is a veritable chameleon, moving from mechanized grooves to faux-ragtime pieces. The piece changes colors again, as a swelling orchestra emerges and stops all sense of time and space. Brian Wilson once described some his works as "teenage symphonies to God," and what Daft Punk attempts here has a similar feel. “Touch” has all the exuberance of youth and the mantra of "if love is the answer you're home, hold on," is something a teenager could readily embrace. But the dreamy days of youth must eventually be replaced by reality, and soon the wizened Paul Williams returns (as if from a hyperbaric chamber) and sings of needing "something more." Unbridled love is a wonderful thing in the misspent days of youth, but without a meaning or purpose it will be lost to time.

The sense of loss is unmistakable on the record, the sound of the proverbial ghost in the machine, sifting through the sands of time looking for the life it once had. It's in this loss, that memories gain importance, becoming a link to the past. Daft Punk appropriately labels them "Fragments of Time" on the Todd Edwards feature, moments we "keep playing back." They bring the past back into focus, but high-definition is soon corrupted by static. Random Access Memories then is that desperate attempt to recapture the past, to evoke a time when the future was crystal clear, and music's possibilities were limitless.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

In Revue- "After Dark 2"

After Dark 2, the second collaborative album from dance label Italians Do It Better begins with a misnomer. Opener "Warm in the Winter" by an impossibly chipper Glass Candy betrays the label's recent output. The Chromatics’ (headed by IDIB mastermind Johnny Jewel) 2012 Kill for Love was a moody dance masterpiece, crafting a place where dance floors and clubs offer but a brief respite from the evils hiding out on the other side of a disco ball. The drumless version in particular became the de-facto midnight soundtrack, press play and drive through the night with the windows down; pretending you’re the sole survivor in a city that's haunted. If macabre dance music were possible, Kill for Love made it happen.

What then to do with opener "Warm in the Winter"?As Andrew Gaerig poignantly wrote in his review of the song for Pitchfork, "musically it's right in the label's wheelhouse, but thematically, it's not," and he's absolutely right. Much of Johnny Jewel's work with the Chromatics and nearly all of his work with the Symmetry project is thematically frigid, restlessly searching for something that may never be found. Darkness is a prevalent theme in the works he contributes to, from the original After Dark's "Handsin the Dark," to the cover of Neil Young's "Into the Black" closing out Kill for Love (Drumless). "You came down to this place to fill out the dark corners with the everlasting light," singer Ida No contrastingly declares over a stately synth-pop track midway through. No's enraptured by the beat, and it's become her personal mission to bring warmth to a freezing world.        

The staid pace of Desire's sole contribution "Tears From Heaven," lowers the temperature and we're back in familiar territory. "I stare out stain-glass windows, but I didn't see anything. I live just like a shadow, I didn't feel anything," is the deflated mantra of the song. Desire namecheck Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," but it’s song's win against all odds mentality is buried under shovelfuls of dour sentiments like "I tried to shut off my mind, but it didn't do anything."

Elsewhere, the fragmented piano of "Half Lives," by newcomers Twisted Wires recalls the bleakness of David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy. "This is the end," the song begins in a lurid tone, and slowly devolves from there, until a spectral wordless chorus emerges. Washes of synthesizer and a steady beat can't save this song from its eventual fate. On their matinee appearance, Glass Candy cloak themselves in a similar apparition, "The Possessed" a dense maze of robotic snaps, whirls, and burbles. Here No is telling of obsession and the inevitable disappointment that follows, "our cares are laughable," she sings as the song slowly coils around you and cuts off all oxygen.

Back in November when the album was only a promise, I wrote of stand-out "Cherry" being a song that reflects the Chromatics, "alternatively dreamy/dreary universe; where every relationship, every kiss, every "fleeting" moment has the weight of the world bearing down upon it." And months later, the statement still rings true. The crying synth sheds more tears than Ruth Radelet on the song and the chugging bass is the only thing keeping her from collapsing. Even surrounded by so much weighty material, "Cherry" feels especially heavy. In the most somber moment, Cherry's true nature is pinpointed, "Cherry can be very sweet when she needs a friend, but it's only a mask she wears so she can pretend," is Radelet's realization. I admit it's a moment I've had more than once in my own life, rushing to someone's side at moment's notice in a time of trouble and left waiting when the roles are reversed. It can be frustrating, deflating, and downright agonizing; calling into question entire relationships. Radelet plays a different kind of waiting game in the song's final verse, praying Cherry sees the beauty in herself that is abundantly clear to Radelet. The realization never comes and their relationship goes running into the night as the moaning synth pays one final visit.

The finale of the record fully captures the haunted appeal, with Mike Simonetti's "The Magician" playing as the outtake from an Argento film. Closer "Redhead's Feel More Pain," by Glass Candy begins with a mordant spoken-word piece, and a minor keyboard figure ensuring the song a spot in the original Exorcist film. That Johnny Jewel's Symmetry project's lone contribution to the LP was "Heart of Darkness," is apt. These are songs made for the darkness, for nights when the combined weight of: doubt, disappointment, and disillusionment is at its heaviest. But for all the darkness there are moments of hope, when the light shines through to let you know that dawn will come, and the weight of the night will soon be shed.   




Friday, May 17, 2013

In Revue- "Modern Vampires of the City"

On a personal level, this album is almost too perfect for me at this time of my life. The long chapter written in stream of consciousness and known as college comes to an end as I'm left counting down the last few days with pockets of friends, some more terrified than others to admit this is the end. Not five minutes before the "gloom and doom" began, there is nothing but joy to be found. As the final few posters are torn from walls, leaving behind only an empty sense of familiarity, my roommates and I smile, crack open the still lingering adult beverages in the fridge, and toast to past/present/and future alike. Modern Vampires of the City is the sound of that laugh, drowning out the uncertainty that lingers just around the corner. 

Immediately on the album we're greeted by the rising of "the red sun," and LED still flickering, as the familiar stomp of tribal drums and plaintive piano reminds us this is a Vampire Weekend album. "Obvious Bicycle" makes for a curious opener, with Koenig caustically singing "no one's gonna spare their time for you," a stinging reminder for any and all transplants hopscotching between stages of life. Koenig is more forgiving, offering up the advice to "leave before you lose." The promise of morning is enough to get Koenig through, even as shadows cover the sidewalks in uncertainty.

The single "Step" is a masterful distillation of the mindset Vampire Weekend craft on this their third record, the ability to smile as you stare headlong into the abyss. The opening drum kick is a portal into another world, as reaffirming as that opening shot on "Like A Rolling Stone." "I'm stronger now, I'm ready for the house," Koenig croons from a distance in the chorus. In lieu of the following lines, "I can't do it alone, I can't do it alone," the line reads as chest-puffing of the highest order, Koenig attempting to be his own hostage negotiator. The almost ancient sounding harpsichord framing the song protects it from the rudeness of the present, and ponders on the past; "maybe she's gone, and I can't resurrect her," while Koenig again tries to force a smile and put a positive spin on things, "the truth is she doesn't need me to protect her."

"Ya Hey" works as the flipside of "Step," another moment of glee at the impending gallows. On one level the song amounts to finger-wagging of the highest order, aimed squarely at the Big Man upstairs; "the faithless they don't love you, the zealous hearts don't love you." It's one of several tracks on the LP to question religion's role in seeing us through times of trouble, on the frenetic guitar strumming of "Worship You" the group wonders "who will guide us through the end?" and "Unbelievers" embraces the "little warmth" that awaits. But "Ya Hey," my early pick for album highlight, works on a less celestial level. Replace God's boundless love for a world that spurns Him, with a lover desperately searching for the last ounce of love in a relationship the partner has given up on, and the metaphor comes into focus. Koenig can't even fully commit to playing the blame-game, admitting, "I can't help but feel that I made some mistakes," as the song swells into the cathartic chorus. While Koenig goes crawling through the "fire and through the flames," his partner just sits in silence. For his lack of faith in a higher power, Koenig is still burdened by an overwhelming faith in humanity.

For all the optimism, this album is still tempered by hard-earned reality. "Diane Young," a full-blown rockabilly rave-up that continues VW's ability to make perfect use of auto-tune is bound for the 27-Club, admitting "nobody knows what the future holds." Elsewhere, the "Hudson" plays out as one of the most dour tracks in the entire VW oeuvre, a minimalist affair replete with a ticking clock that's "such a drag," and the faint sound of a sour military marching band. In spite of the unrelenting bleakness the song suggests,  Koenig cracks jokes and tells tales of those brave souls who linger on, "rejoicing to the end." That notion of a merry few lifting seeing you through the waning days is what Vampire Weekend incisively soundtrack on MVOTC. This isn't the closing of a book, but the turning of a page, and the story is far from over.

"Ya Hey"

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Good Ass Intro"- Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper's the sort of emcee to absolute geek out about if you have any love for rap music at all. He's got the "proper" respect for hip-hop's past, lovingly mining jazz and boom-bap rap samples with the giddiness of a teenager whose just heard Goodie Mob or Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth for the first time. And like any truly great rapper, he just makes it look way too easy on "Good Ass Intro," the first track off his starmaking Acid Rap mixtape. It's soulful without being preachy and Chance steps down from the pulpit to strut across the entire track. Something this dense and ear-grabbing would be easy to get buried under, but Chance is so cocksure, it doesn't even cross his mind that this is something he can't conquer. The head-turning first verse balances well-placed pill-popping assonance with late-night show namechecking that belies his years, "motherf***er money dance, hundreds zan, gotta lean, make a joke bout Leno's hair, then fall back on Fallon's spleen." With 2012's 10 Days he set the stage, and now with Acid Rap he's putting on a show. The introduction's already been taken care of.

Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap mixtape is out now, you can download here, you'll be glad you did. (Look for a review of the whole tape to come soon.)