Friday, April 29, 2011

Track Review: Snowman - "Hyena"

When a band announces its breakup prior to the release of their newest record, one of two types of albums tend to result: 1) a document of two distinct yet conflicting minds (see: Spacemen 3’s Recurring [1991]), or 2) a grand reconciliation of all the band’s prior artistic concerns, melded into one final, single-minded testament (see: Yellow Swans’ Going Places [2010]). It remains to be seen where Absence will fall for Snowman—the Australian expatriates whose members have, since the release of their brooding, underrated 2008 record, The Horse, the Rat, and the Swan, been splitting time between London, Iceland, and various regions of the UK—but in any case this dispersal has led the band to amicably agree on disbandment rather than attempt any sort of cross-continental collaboration.

With their fate sealed, Snowman look to have taken the opportunity to wrap up their career in purposeful fashion. In an interview earlier this year with Life is Noise, frontman Jon McKee promised an album “creamier and dreamier than the last…still rhythmically driven, but also awash in textural walls of sound.” For fans of The Horse, the Rat, and the Swan, this seems to hint towards an increased focus (and perhaps elaboration) on that record’s tense midsection, where the mind-flaying riffs of the bookending tracks folded in on a sequence of tribal, séance-like repetition. In other words, their most Liars-esque side. And while their Australian roots won’t do much to alleviate these comparisons in the wake of their demise, the band has consistently dropped records between each of their more well-regarded compatriots’ releases, which in a weird way has elevated Snowman albums while satiating listeners such as myself who could do with a bit more of these clanging, atmospheric sonic explorations that these bands specialize in.

Unlike Liars and their current string of blunt, standalone singles, however, “Hyena” feels like a quintessential album track. Built around dramatic choral vocals and turbulent undercurrents of flanged guitar and indigenous percussion, the track crests and recedes in a fashion typical of many album-conscience segues. The track’s movements are so clearly delineated and its dynamics so forcefully punctuated, however, that this hardly matters. In fact, it actually bodes well for Absence, as Snowman’s greatest attribute over their short career has been their ability to build momentum and gravity across the length of a full album. As the second piece in Absence‘s eight track sequence, “Hyena” has the potential to bridge some pretty galvanic highs. But left alone it’s still rousing and hypnotic in the contradictory manner that Snowman has, from the beginning, attempted to build its legacy upon. [CMG]

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Record Review: The Feelies - Here Before

One of the more charming characteristics of the Feelies over the years has been the way they’ve gleefully ignored prevailing trends. When the band debuted in 1980 with the cult classic Crazy Rhythms, the trends in post-punk skewed dark, methodical, and confrontational. The Feelies, by contrast, were dweebs with horn rims from New Jersey trading in the some of the most tightly coiled guitar pop in the American underground. In fact, the Crazy Rhythms sound would prove so unique that the band never again attempted to replicate it. Following their debut the band went on hiatus, and when they returned in 1986 with a revamped line-up, their sound reflected the shift in personnel. But once again the resulting album, The Good Earth—whose release straddled the tail-end of first wave hardcore and the emerging sounds of the grunge generation, but which aesthetically amounted to folksy ’70s strum and laid-back Velvets harmonizing—didn’t exactly tap the zeitgeist.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Record Review: Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place

When discussing Julianna Barwick’s music, I often speak of the dream-state her records so frequently conjure. I hate to lean on this analogy too heavily, but the intrinsic qualities of her sound—layers of ambient synth; hypnotic, choir-of-one vocal loops; sonic towers of reverb—feel like they’ve always been here, hidden amidst the negative space of so many less patient experimental genres. Barwick’s two previous records—both short displays of her unique process—were individuated exercises in tone, and as such held up extremely well as both sources for mental and emotional immersion, and as simple background music. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of too concentrated an aesthetic, Barwick has opened up her sound ever-so-slightly on her appropriately titled debut LP, The Magic Place, expanding her productions from drifting, barely-there soundscapes to swooning, three-dimensional songs—and all without sacrificing the astral touch and angelic nature that grounds her work in our base emotions.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Track Review: Thurston Moore - "Benediction"

Among the handful of common themes established over the first four months of 2011, one of the most curious has been a series of reclamations of the acoustic troubadour persona. Slacker rock legend J Mascis confidently unplugged for his recent LP, Several Shades of Why, while direct Mascis descendant Kurt Vile upped the fidelity and sanded down the prickly lo-fi edges of his sound for an uncommonly comfortable coming-out party on the great Smoke Ring for My Halo. Continuing the trend is Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who has taken his recent solo work in the exact opposite direction of his still-prolific main gig.

It may have taken twelve years for Trees Outside the Academy (2007) to arrive after 1995’s very SY-like Psychic Hearts, but the record notably evidenced a man totally comfortable in his maturing artistic skin, transferring many of his stylistic proclivities to the stripped-down realm of the acoustic-oriented singer-songwriter. It wasn’t a bad look, though a lot of the material probably could have worked better if allowed to simmer amidst the cauldron of Moore’s full-time band. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the same basic gripe Maura had with Several Shades of Why.)

On evidence of “Benediction,” from the forthcoming Demolished Thoughts, Moore appears to be settling into this new mode with a dedication many would probably not have originally guessed. What continues to overlap between these outlets, however, is Moore’s ambiguously macabre lyrics, which here belie the good graces suggested by the song’s title and instead outline a domineering relationship (“You better hold your lover down / And tie him to the ground”) with potentially fatal consequences (“Simple pleasure strike like lightning / Scratches cross her name / Whisper I love you my darling / Life is just a flame”). The chasm widens even further as Moore juxtaposes these unsettling lines with an almost chamber-like arrangement featuring frequent collaborator Samara Lubelski on violin. It’s got a tone similar to that of the early work of Tim Buckley (think Hello and Goodbye [1967]), but undercurrents reminiscent of the urban nightmares typical of Lou Reed. But it’s important to note that these artists frequently changed modes of expressions as well, and with Moore’s solo career looking more and more like its own artistic concern, it’s probably time we start evaluating this music on its own terms. “Benediction” may fall perfectly in line with 2011, but Moore seems to have his eyes wisely focused on the big picture. [CMG]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

InRO Feature: Home Movies - March (2011)

"Although Eclipse wins the pick of the month with their top-notch release of Mikio Naruse’s silent films and Criterion continually knocks our socks off, it's hard not to proclaim March 'The Month of Raro Video': Raro, an arthouse distributor not unlike Criterion, in Italy, landed on these shores this month to start unloading titles they've been specializing in for years elsewhere. Exploring the four films of Raro’s “Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection” was like discovering a whole new world that existed only in pastiche and appropriation; and at a cool 25 bucks, there is imply no reason not to own this four DVD set. On the other side of the proverbial coin, Raro also released Frederico Fellini’s obscure and esoteric made-for-TV ‘documentary’ “The Clowns.” Part novelty and part self-critic, “The Clowns” oddly brought a new perspective to Jacques Rivette’s most recent film, “Around a Small Mountain,” also out this month from Cinema Guild. Also on Raro’s recent roster, but not reviewed here: Antonioni’s “The Vanquished” and Francesco Barilli’s suspense-thriller “The Perfume of the Lady in Black.” If March is any indicator, Raro is one to watch." Kathie Smith [Feature by Jordan Cronk and Kathie Smith] [InRO]

(Note: For archiving purposes, I've included my personal contributions to this column below. Please follow the link provided above to read the entire feature - JC)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Record Review: Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972

For working within a genre so often derided for its anonymity, the ambient/drone constructions of Montreal-based sound-sculptor Tim Hecker are notably concrete. From the beginning, Hecker’s brought an uncommon focus and conceptual breadth to a genre more than willing drift off into the distance. At its best—say, on his 2001 classic Haunt Me, Haunt, Do It Again, or 2006's exquisitely realized Harmony in Ultraviolet—Hecker’s music is amongst the most vivid and disarmingly powerful being produced today. Regardless of preference, each Hecker album thus far has been an airtight, immaculately detailed sound-world unto itself, appropriate in distinct ways for varying moods and desired results. Hecker’s sixth and newest album, the darkly compelling Ravedeath, 1972, is another in this line of conceptually precise, grandly drawn immersions in sound. And it’s amongst his best work to date.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Track Review: Marissa Nadler - "Baby, I Will Leave You In the Morning"

It’s frankly a little troubling—though completely indicative of the time—that an artist as talented as Marissa Nadler has to hawk homemade covers albums and launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the recording of her new album. Even as one of the few folk-based songstresses to gain a foothold in the post-New Weird America indie landscape, Nadler nevertheless remains sorely underrated, despite building a quietly intimidating catalogue which reached an apex with 2009’s excellent Little Hells. With that being said, the donation process thankfully succeeded, and Nadler’s upcoming self-titled will soon arrive via her own Box of Cedar imprint.

She recently commented via press release that the album is “the most natural, honest thing I’ve ever written… I’m no longer hiding. The mystery still exists in the music as an aesthetic tool, but the songs cut harder because of the vocal mix, with more varied colors than my other records.” This more confident approach obviously holds intriguing potential, particularly when you consider that Little Hells already saw Nadler embracing her inner Elizabeth Fraser to deploy an array of synthetic new wave textures in an attempt to offset her more traditionally based acoustic confessionals. If Marissa Nadler does indeed hold further experiments outside the folk realm, then “Baby, I Will Leave You in the Morning” isn’t disclosing a whole lot in that direction.

Instead, the song’s slow-burn extends many of the familiar elements we’ve seen in her most recent material. And it does so wonderfully. Synth engulfs the mix here, sounding downright expansive atop deliberate percussion and Nadler’s painfully honest admission that her departure, despite her partner’s commitment, has been inevitable from the start (“Been a sinner all my life,” she confesses repeatedly). What “cuts harder” here isn’t necessarily her vocals, which sound as rich and expressive as ever, but the confidence she has in unraveling a narrative with very little in the way of traditional structure. In other words, there’s not really a chorus here, forcing the listener to hang on Nadler’s every word as the track dramatically builds towards not catharsis or relief, surprisingly, but a feeling of deep regret. Embarking on yet another of her aforementioned “sinner days,” Nadler finally seems to get what she wants, yet immediately changes her tone once realization to the severity of the break takes hold, begging for forgiveness as the song moves towards a close, admitting—with a tinge of pain and a lump in her throat—“I am getting higher by the moment / I was wrong to leave you / I was wrong.” [CMG]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Film Review: Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” represents the most impressive end result imaginable for a career which has blossomed quietly, enigmatically, and altogether wonderfully over the last decade. During his brief but highly impressive initial run, the film’s director, Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, already revealed a fascination with the spiritual, the metaphysical, and the ideas behind dreams, the afterlife, and ultimately, reincarnation. Apichatpong’s first, “Mysterious Object at Noon,” blended fiction and documentary into a compelling examination of the filmmaking process, and in some ways it serves as a handy analysis of the director’s methods. If that film divulged technique and outlined a kind of hybrid mentality for the director, then his next four films have consistently expanded on these terms, concealing the seams in his aesthetic while provoking discourse on his chosen themes.

Podcast: End of Radio #33 - Heavy Manners

"Continuing their process of live, on-the-fly playlist construction, your End of Radio co-hosts Jordan Cronk and Brian Webster return with another random show touching on variations in late 70s rock music while at the same time unwittingly surveying the mid-aughts experimental indie scene. They also get off on some pretty risqué album art."

Record Review: James Blake - James Blake

With the genre currently entrenched in its most willfully omnivorous state, it’s certainly not uncommon for electronic artists to regurgitate styles in an effort not to repeat themselves. But even still, the strides that young post-dubstep wunderkind James Blake has taken in such a concentrated amount of time are nearly unprecedented. It’s not often that we see a debut album that feels not only like a mature, fully-formed artistic statement, but also one that feels like such a definitive break with the artist’s prior work. In Blake’s case, this is five releases—one single, three EPs, and now this self-titled full-length—each it’s own unique entity, each constructing self-imposed stylistic confines from which to work, and each a surprising and rather remarkable step forward from the last. If early tracks from The Bells Sketch and CMYK EPs approached modern R&B from a distanced, abstract vantage, then the proceeding Klavierwerke EP found Blake more openly engaging with a style that has made an unexpected comeback over the last year. James Blake, then, is the full blossoming of this latter approach, a brave singer-songwriter effort from a producer hell-bent on refracting his stylistic proclivities through the systematic lens of modern technology.