Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"I'll Be Laughing with Everyone I'll See"- Neutral Milk Hotel Live at Liberty Hall

I was worried going into Neutral Milk Hotel's set at Liberty Hall last night. Not for anything relating to the band mind you. I've seen them twice before, lead-singer Jeff Mangum once, and instinctively knew it would be an all-encompassing emotional event. There would be the sparse howling of "Oh Comely," the galloping "Song Against Sex" and the heavenly death mediation of "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." Everything would A-Okay in that regard.

I was worried because I was going to the show solo. Even when I'm covering an event, I generally hate going solo because I love talking music with people. I run this blog to share and rhapsodize about music. So being "stuck" at a show is worrisome because all of that enthusiasm is bottled up. That's incredibly true of an NMH show where five different nerves can be struck on the same song. When those nerves are blocked, when you don't have anyone to connect with, it can be crippling.

Those concerns were ultimately unfounded though because it was Neutral Milk Hotel I was seeing. If there are more inclusive fan-bases in music, I’ve yet to find them. NMH is one of those bands where if you look around at the crowd you know you’re on the same sonic wavelength. It takes a particular sort of person to hear earnest poetry in lyrics about Anne Frank and "placing fingers through the notches in your spine." It’s incredibly strange because Mangum’s lyrics are so intentionally cryptic that rallying around them shouldn’t be possible. They’re so tightly coiled, and he so personally reserved with his wild tangles of hair, that getting into the band’s world is an uphill slog on the level of Micky Ward trying to win in The Fighter.

But once you’re in, you’ll "wait for the rest of your life" as the line in "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2" goes. The crowd at Liberty Hall was in before Magnum even took the stage to hammer away on the chords of Ferris Wheel on Fire cut "I Will Bury You in Time." Everyone around me lost their shit when the similarly bearded Scott Spillane came out to tune up his trombone. In all deference to Spillane, who is so splendidly puckish in the way he sings along to the lyrics when he’s not playing, a crowd that’s enthralled by the mere presence of a trombone player is one that will eat up anything.

And for the span of an hour-and-a-half, the sold-out crowd did just that. They head-banged to "Holland, 1945." They went silent for severely underrated On Avery Island tracks "Baby for Pree" and "Gardenhead." Mass hypnosis happened during the acid-folk/baroque march of "The Fool" where Spillane’s horns cried and Julian Koster’s accordion wearily exhaled. The roof could’ve caved-in at that moment and no one would’ve noticed for what was happening on stage. We all did our best warbly Mangum impersonation when he creakily declared "There is no reason to grieve" in "Two-Headed Boy."

Realistically, the line is one of the best pieces of advice you could offer to anyone worrying about the future of the band. This will be their last tour for a while, and considering they previously went dormant for a decade, things look pretty dim. The notion was reinforced by Mangum who was uncharacteristically warm at times when he would put his hands over his heart in gratitude to the fervent crowd. 

But like my fear of going alone, the band’s absence doesn’t matter. People who weren’t even alive when either of their albums dropped in the mid-90s continue to find them. There will always be a community around this band. Even when they go away their music will be around. It’ll be around to cry over, to laugh with and to giddily rock out to. There’s no reason to grieve.  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Revue- 'Cherry Bomb' (Tyler, the Creator)

What are we looking for from Tyler, the Creator circa 2015? We're five years removed from hearing "what the devil plays before he goes to sleep." Four from being introduced to the "f***ing walking paradox" who surrounds torch-bearing love tracks with stomach-churning rape jokes. All the protests and think-pieces have been dead for at least two years now. So now what? What then? With all of the artifice and hype swept away, what reason do we have to still pay attention to Tyler? Is he the kind of artist we don't want to grow up because his "immaturity" was what made him so fascinating to begin with? What the hell does artistic maturation mean for Tyler?

That central question is what makes listening to Tyler's fourth LP Cherry Bomb so frustrating; he doesn't have a meaningful answer. At times, flecks of musical evolution in Cherry Bomb are infinitesimal. "Pilot"'s got an incredible thrum to it, the kind you could fit on a percussive Dizzee Rascal track and then it’s swallowed by static before the chorus even starts. "Buffalo"'s lovely little chintz synths can't stand up to the unstable drum burbling, which makes you think the mic was inside the kit. There's a Clams Casino feel in the way Cherry Bomb is blown out, it sounds like it was mixed in a tin bucket of mop water then resuscitated with the exposed wires from a nearby light switch. You may need to consult Genius to find great lines like "Boy I got them epic shots like jaywalking in Missouri." The whole of closer "OKAGA, CA," with its cooing vocals and lithe strings, concerns escaping all of life's bullshit by flying to the moon with a loved one, but you'd never know that from the vocal effects applied to T.C.'s voice. I get the Yeezus aesthetic at work, but Yeezus was quotable from the words "Yeezus season approaching" in the opener "On Sight." Not so with Cherry Bomb; Tyler's trying to make a noise album while being lyrical, which isn't a workable dichotomy.

Not that everything Tyler says on Cherry Bomb is something people would want to hear. He still bounces the word "f****ot* around, which is far more frustrating now because he admits "I'm going harder than coming out the closet to conservative Christian fathers." That's a funny lyric undercut by his laziness to find a different word to finish verses. The more negative among us could take a line like "laying on my trampoline, gazing at the stars, "in the aforementioned "Okaga, CA," as the sort of inward-looking platitude appearing in a C-grade Kid Cudi effort. For people who eat maple syrup on a regular basis, hearing something so positive and sweet from Tyler is satisfying.

There are great moments on Cherry Bomb that don't need any caveats. If the instrumental from the title track didn't pop up in the 2015 horror insta-classic It Follows, then I must've been plugging my ears and closing my eyes. The opening notes sound like the devil waking up from a deep slumber. The dissonance works to Tyler's favor here because his rapping is so malevolent and fractured you'd believe he's trapped in this kind of hellscape. Elsewhere "The Brown Stains of Darkeese Latifah Part 6-12" (Remix) is flat-out marvelous and should be played to future generations of music lovers interested in 2010s music. It blends PC Music helium sighs; DJ Mustard plinks, clanging Pharrell percussion and an Arca-esque sense of build. I kept hitting repeat when I first listened to the album and logged 10 listens of the song on day 1 of the LP's surprise release. Tyler talking smack while nomming on Eggos is a detail that can't get old.  

And then there's "Smuckers," Cherry Bomb's unshakeable center of gravity that features both Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Compared to "The Brown Stains..." the "We Major" Jr. song is miles better. All three rappers are in near-peak form, so picking a winner is difficult but Kanye's "Richer than white people with black kids, scarier than black people with ideas," is too good to ignore. The track’s brilliance is clear long before the horns stop blurting and Tyler fires a final missive.

I wish could say that for all of Cherry Bomb because I do find Tyler compelling as a musician. He’s willing to entertain ideas most would run scared from. He’ll f*** around and put hokey skits where they shouldn’t be. He’ll have keyboards fight for Sunlight with dark synthesizer clouds.  The dude’s has enough respect and talent to bring Kanye and Wayne together and not be shown up. He believes in himself, but Cherry Bomb proves he still isn’t sure who he is as an artist.

Friday, April 3, 2015

In Revue- 'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress' (Godspeed You! Black Emperor)

You're face-to-face with gods within the first 20 seconds of Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, anarchistic post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor's fifth LP and their first collection of new material since their 2010 reformation. These are magisterial figures descending from a cloudy mountaintop to impart riff-heavy wisdom. Imagine Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda drowning in a tar pit or Egyptian serpent Apep constricting Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and you're close to the divinely sludgy sound GY!BE lets loose for the first several minutes of opener "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'" It isn't just the guitars; Aidan Girt's drums heavily stumble like Rick Ross off of 50 lagers. The bass rumbles could drown out the noise of a misfiring train engine. Few bands understand the grandeur of noise this well.

The way they dedicate a good deal of time to quietly trembling drones, instead of knee-shaking guitar solos, is arguably the most impressive (at times frustrating) thing about Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. It's still impressively orchestrated noise, but the kind that requires you to focus on nuanced ebbs and flows. "Peasantry…" hits you with two balled-up fists; fuzzy, scraping twins "Lambs Breath" and "Asunder Sweet" finger walk down the back of your neck. You can hear organs and keyboards coughing up blood because there isn't anything fighting for sonic space. There’s a particular pin-drop moment, near the coda of "Lambs Breath," when you witness post-Apocalyptic Earth once all of the detritus has been swept away. I was walking through a crowded university parking garage the first time I heard it, but I felt completely alone. The rows of cars represented those who didn't make it out. Even an eerie radiator hum is cause for celebration in this desolate world. Noise comes at premium.

Which can test your patience if you're expecting the skyward Godspeed You! Black Emperor of Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. Nearly half of the album's 41 minute run time is given over to the aforementioned void of noise. There is the occasional Middle-Eastern violin in "Asunder, Sweet" and brain scrambling horn sound, but nothing seems to last for long. I anxiously tapped my right foot during the mid-section because it was so unsettling. We live in disconcerting times though and a "political" outfit like GY!BE understands that. Terrorist groups dominant international headlines. Co-pilots are crashing planes in the French Alps after endlessly researching suicide methods on the dank recesses of the Internet. The bad news can pile up so much that a Kenyan school massacre resulting in 147 dead is pushed aside. How the hell can you have hope when those are the headlines? If it's true that music is a reflection of that society that makes it, then we really are "trapped in the belly of this horrible machine" as “the machine is bleeding to death."

The funny thing about humanity though is that it is blessed/cursed with immutable hope. Godspeed You! Black Emperor isn’t any different. For all of the agony they and their audience endure on Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, GY!BE end with the defiant Sturm und Drang of "Piss Crowns Are Trebled." The closer lets the damns loose and hits some of the highest highs that I've ever heard from the collective. That initial earthquake of a riff comes back, but now it's empowering rather than fear mongering. Sophie Trudeau's violin here should score a person's entire life being rewound, it's that affirming. The drums stop stumbling and lock into focus. After 27 minutes of horror, we're given a reprieve. The kind that can lift you up out of the bowels of hell if you need it to. That will make the world seem brighter. Gods, saviors or superheroes don't come down from on-high when you want them to, they show up when you need them to.