Friday, 27 February 2009

Three extraordinary albums, part 3

I guess I screwed up my plans for doing a post like this every other Monday. I don't know whether I'll be able to (or WANT to) keep this on a regular schedule or just post it whenever the heck I feel like it, so let's get started. This time, I'll repeat some artists I've covered in previous posts, but I'm using here, as a sort of criterion, albums that I've been obsessed with recently. They're the sort of "instantly extraordinary" albums in heavy rotation in my playlists, so don't expect anything perfectly balanced. Ok? So here's the three of 'em:

1. Chemical Chords - Stereolab

Once again, it's the stereophonic laboratory I'm talking about. Last time it was Dots and Loops, but if you play both albums back to back, there are only two things that can tell you it's the same band: Lætitia Sadier and the obsessively, microcosmically intricate arrangement and production. Because, you know, the music is a world apart. Gone are the days when Stereolab would listen to 'Hallogallo' by NEU! and write a song on top of it (even though I really like that part of their career) -- Tim Gane turned into a wild music devouring monster by the time Emperor Tomato Ketchup came around, and their discography shows. Even still, Chemical Chords represents a drastic rupture for the band -- not only in moving to 4AD, but in using Motown as inspiration. The rhythms, brasses and tuned percussion will probably give that away. But, MAN. I think that, in terms of combining sheer fun with insane complexity, only Mike Oldfield's Amarok beats it, and that's not saying little.

Let your finger randomly fall in any title on the track list, and you'll be SURE that there'll be something absolutely devious going on in the respective song. Really. The album is that good. Not a single moment goes by in blank -- to the point where the first listen will probably be a mess, with all songs becoming a big mush in your mind. But learn to distinguish them and you'll start paying attention to all the moments the album is consisted of: the childishly funny trombone melody of 'Neon Beanbag', the little xylophone melody near the last chorus of 'Three Women', the chromatically "falling" strings near the end of the title track, the tingling melody bookmarking the chorus of 'Valley Hi!', the call-and-response in the beginning of 'Silver Sands', the vibraphone breaks in 'Self Portrait with "Electric Brain"', the buzzing synth melody on 'Nous Vous Demondon Pardons', the dissonant string haze on 'Fractal Dream of a Thing', the vibraphone patterns on 'Daisy Click Clack', and that's only covering the surface. The band was obviously in a phase when the music should constantly do something -- and not merely to make it "intellectual". This is not labour for labour's sake: this is music to keep you entertained. CONSTANTLY entertained.

But not only that: many songs here are already impressive only for the songwriting. 'Neon Beanbag' is an endless succession of little melodies that bounce off each other, switching between vibraphones, organs, Sadier's voice and whatnot. The title track is a miracle, built entirely on an unbelievably effective rhythm pattern, with melodic phrases coming in on every turn (I speak sincerely: if there is one song I wish I had written, in the whole world, THIS is the one). 'Valley Hi!' is short and very sweet, the closest to "cute" that the band ever got to. 'Daisy Click Clack' is so fun and so childlike it's more Syd Barrett than Stereolab. And it works! The band sounds totally at home with it, and Lætitia mixes lyrics like "Clap clap, clap clap, all will join in / Tap tap, tap tap, simple rhythm" and "Sensing the symbiotic forces" like only she can.

The musical ideas just keep coming in this album -- and unlike some other review suggests, I don't think the sense of fun is undermined by the complexity and labour contained in the album. In fact: one amplifies the other, and to me, only helps to prove that they are not mutually exclusive. Try it on road trips.

2. Just a Souvenir - Squarepusher

Though I still think Ultravisitor is his magnum opus, this album finds Tom Jenkinson at the top of his game. With Hello Everything, he tried to stitch all his different influences and styles into a "patchwork" album, but here, he throws them into a blender and lets it all loose. Jazz? Check. Breakcore? Check. Classical guitar? Check. Rock 'n' roll? Ch-- what, rock? Squarepusher playing rock? Yep, check! The songs have such an amazing combination of skills and talents that they're nearly unbelievable. Need an example? Check out 'A Real Woman'. The only way I can describe that song is "The Ramones meet jazz fusion breakcore". The brutal simplicity of the 'Blitzkrieg Bop' verses never directly clash with the unusual harmonies from the Vocoder or the insanely twisting bass breaks, but they actually live together in harmony and cuddle.

The trend goes well for the rest of the album: the jazzy bass lines go right along with freaked out pseudo-disco grooves AND with copiously distorted guitar riffs. The songs go from pleasant soundscapes of tuned percussion and synthetic pads to twisted one-man-band interplay, and the drums many times blur the line between sequences samples and live playing. I think Just a Souvenir has Squarepusher finding HIS sound, something that only he can produce, something that mixes the extremely refined with the violently intense, the pleasant and the exciting, the ugly and the complex. Of course he has already done similar things in previous albums, like Music Is Rotted One Note and the aforementioned Ultravisitor, but THOSE albums didn't have themes dealing with shimmering coat hangers, women that are happy because they're real, and acoustic guitars that can distort time.

Okay, I'll explain: the album is titled so because it's a musical representation of a "souvenir", which is Jenkinson's memory of a daydream which featured "a crazy, beautiful rock band playing an ultra gig". The liner notes describe in detail his "daydream", mentioning the crazy guitar that distorts time, the band members being washed by an electrical storm that turns the entire building into a guitar amplifier, and a snare drum that floats in mid-air and explodes due to "electromagnetic radiation emitted by nearby neutron stars". Knowing Squarepusher's purposefully "mythical" and sometimes mysterious image, I'm quite comfortable with taking the whole narration as a put on (what kind of daydream would go into such detail and feature "a small dent where a pantechnicon lorry had smashed through the back wall of the stage to deliver a replacement snare drum"? I mean, I don't think it's dishonest at all for a musician to make up a "story" to envelop his work of art. And, really, the story is so funny in its mix of dream fantasy and incredibly snobby descriptions ("sounded as if the bass guitar was actually a RSJ played with a chainsaw, enclosed in a ventilated cabinet of fine mahogany") that it's definitely worth reading. And it's even better when you hear, in the music, cues relating to the story. The time-shifting guitar? It's actually there! Three tracks are pieces for acoustic guitar and digital effects that sound exactly like that. The "chainsaw RSJ"? Check out 'Delta-V' and the AMAZING 'Planet Gear'. The gleaming coat hanger? Yup: observe it, respect it. Really, what can be better than a virtuoso electronic jazz musician being pseudo-humble and attributing his creativity to a bizarre daydream? The answer is, of course, the resulting album. Check it out.

3. Heaven of Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins

I don't think this is their best album (that post is occupied by Treasure), but this is the album I listen to far more often. I have difficulty talking about Cocteau Twins, because, really, how can you talk about their sound? Unlike a lot of people, I don't get the "music from Mars" vibe from this band. They don't sound at all like "aliens" to me -- they simply concocted a very unique sound and made excellent use of it. But, really, how close is this to "pop" music, or to "synthpop" or whatever? I think labels like "ethereal" are pretty silly, ESPECIALLY when it comes to Cocteau Twins. Better leave it unlabelled, you know? "You wanna know what they sound like? Well, listen to it yourself! That's what YouTube is there for!" That's better. However, Heaven or Las Vegas is unique for a reason: it's POP! Really, it's POP MUSIC. All songs are meticulously crafted like pop songs -- all with their usual mix of instruments and layers, but applied to extremely catchy tunes. In fact, there's exactly one thing that prevents this album from being 100% radio friendly: the unintelligible lyrics. Just like with every other Cocteau Twins song made since then, you just can't understand what Liz Frazer is singing -- and that's the POINT. While it sounds sad that excellent songs like these don't fall into people's tastes ONLY because you can't discern the words, the move reveals a sense of humour that's very in tune with the band derailing critics by titling all songs in Treasure with names of people. Liz purposefully sticks in SOME intelligible phrases, that is, the odd "thank you for mending me babies" or "must be why I'm thinking of Las Vegas", but only to give you the wrong impression that there ARE actual lyrics there, and you must make more effort to pick them up. And so did many people. And the results are beyond absurd. It's not a "new" trick for the band, but here, it makes more sense than ever.

Some people complain that the album lacks the band's "edge", because the moods in the different tracks are more similar than before. There aren't any truly ominous or moody songs. But why should I complain about that when the songs are nothing short of brilliant? The title track, alone, is worth the entire album, with guitar layers that spread into vast infinity, vocal harmonies that are at the same time complicated yet catchy, and even gritty guitar solos. I'm obsessed with that song -- and many others get really close, like the vague yet catchy 'Cherry Coloured Funk', the insanely groovy 'Iceblink Luck', the beautiful and soothing 'Fotzepolitic' and the glorious 'Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires'. Even the less catchy songs always have something nifty going on -- usually Frazer's vocal melodies. Just like Robin Guthrie can extract all sorts of amazing and wonderful sounds out of his processed guitar and synthesizers, her voice takes all sorts of shapes and forms, producing tiny symphonies in these otherwise simple songs. Unique sound and ingenious songwriting make this album truly extraordinary. Start here if you want a smooth yet effective introduction into the band.

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