Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Record of the Moment, Record Review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver

Where to start with this record? It's absolutely stunning. I know that gets thrown around a lot (I have, after all, ranted and raved about many records here), but this record simply is that. It's a record that is unlike any other, something that seemingly can't come from this world...but yet, it rings as completely heartfelt, warm, and true when at first it seems that such a record would be impossible to make.

I am going to opt against discussing at length the legend and the myth that surrounds the ethos of Bon Iver, with the whole "cabin in the winter writing songs of heartbreak" thing that everyone else seems to think is paramount to understanding Bon Iver. Partially because I could copy and paste any Bon Iver-related review which will most assuredly host a painstaking analysis over Bon Iver's roots, thus saving me work. But the bigger thing is that for Bon Iver, it's totally unnecessary for understanding or enjoying the record (no backstory should be required to make an album "good," that's for sure).

The one word I would use to describe this record is: ethereal. It seems to exist in a plane of living outside of ours, but the record speaks with a warmth and sincerity. A peculiar way to describe the record, sure, so let me use an analogy even more peculiar which may shed some light. If a dream could be physically represented, I'd personally characterize it as silvery stuff, which is not a very helpful description at all. In many ways, it's sort of reminiscent of the physical manifestation of memories in Harry Potter, but fluffier, perhaps. Either way, it represents something that seems to us as entirely real but isn't exactly real. This bizarre feeling is perhaps the best way I can describe Bon Iver.

The record is essentially structureless: songs fail to adhere to traditional structures, being more abstract landscapes of places ranging from the real ("Perth") to not-so-real ("Hinnom, TX"). But it's not as if that each track decides to take the "Perth sound" or "Tex-Mex" and make a song about it as if creating a pastiche (for that matter, I'm not sure what "Perth sound" would sound like, and the thought of Bon Iver going into "Tex-Mex" is frightening in that it would be odd, but I wouldn't be surprised if Vernon made it work). Each locale on the record has its own mood, style of sound that is evoked during the track, giving something as location-less as an emotion a place to stay, develop, and grow. Each location's emotion is part of a whole and (rather ironically) contributes to that holistic sense of being place-less; Bon Iver essentially asserts that though there are places that generate emotional responses in us, the constant things in life, our emotions, are boundless. The record sounds warm, at home, and pastoral while expanding the horizons of sound and music-craft to dizzying heights bordering (and oftentimes achieving) the epic at the same time.

And I suppose I should mention that perhaps what holds the record together is Justin Vernon's voice. At the same time earthly and beyond this world, his voice is the extremely pliable tool with which the emotional heft of the record is solely based upon. Without its capabilities of a divinely-given and inspired falsetto through to the earthy tones of the lower octaves, the record's emotional base would not exist; given the scope of the music around it, the entire record would have likely collapsed into an overly trite heap of scrap. But Vernon's voice holds it together and creates a record that is far beyond the sum of its parts, creating something truly inspired and beyond here with things of this world.

This is a record is what the world has been waiting for, for a long time. So much of music now and from before is "dated" and bound to a specific time or a specific place. Bon Iver, though, manages to elude such trappings of space and time to contribute something absolutely beautiful, meaningful, and stunning in both beauty and scope. A record truly timeless that will likely stand tall when not only the music of this year is reflected upon, but in the scope of eternity when all things are considered.


ed: Sure, this review is late. Whoops. But in my defense, like this record, I'm not bound to human systems like "time."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Apology

I do sincerely apologize for the apparent lack of rock verbiage being said on this blog here recently, and I thoroughly blame my last quarter of university ever.  I have some new topics to write about this summer, and hopefully they'll be coming at a normal rate.  Some record ravings (x's Los Angeles comes to mind at the very least), and some other stuff too.

But a little utterly bizarre is this?

Weezer covering Radiohead.  You ask someone to define good 90's music, and 65% of people would probably either mention Weezer or Radiohead.  The voices of Rivers and Thom covered different spheres but they both totally represented the 90s.  So for one to cover the other is absolutely inane.  And I mean that in a good way.  You expect Thom's voice to slink and and Rivers just charges it and so the song is given a whole different feel.  It's complete accurate outside of the whole Rivers v. Thom thing and some of the guitar solos.  I personally dig it even if it's totally not the original.  It's just...different.  The only way to accurately describe it is bizarro.  And that's all.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Getting the Party Started...Right

There's many ways to start a party...but there's only one way to start it right.  And when I say "party," I actually mean "record."

The observant will note that I sort-if-did rail on The King of Limbs for having an extremely weak opening track.  While coincidental that this entry follows, there is no cause-and-effect to it, as I've been thinking about this issue for awhile. does one start a record off right?  It's a few things.  Personally, I think the key ingredient in a good opening track is a sense of direction, a sense of momentum.  It's got to pull you in and get you hooked, and nothing does that like imbuing the listener with a sense of direction.  It doesn't necessarily have to be, you know, a song that blazes at 250bpm with only power chords or something (i.e. punk), but it does have to feel like it moves and it has to move you.

Which brings up the second point.  It has to move the listener, and at least imbue the listener with a sense of feeling.  You've got to identify with've got to FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL it.  Or something like that.  On the whole, though, I think the former criteria of direction is more important than feeling/catharsis.  The best songs have heaps of both, but there are some cases where catharsis can trump direction as the go-to effect.  So to discuss some examples:

1. Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited
So it probably figures that my favorite record ever also has the best starting track to ever grace mankind?  Yep.  No coincidence there.  I don't need to elaborate on the title track.  Because if I do, there is a serious problem.  "Like A Rolling Stone" is the best song ever.  Period.  But why is it so good?  Because, quite simply, it changes your world.  It says "HERE COMETH I, THE SPIRIT OF ROCK" or something cheesy like that.  It executes a bombing raid on your brain and leaves it in ashes and rubble.  And after it completely resets your brain, the rest of the album continues the blitz.  And that's why this record is the best ever.  But of course, you don't believe me.  But let Bruce Springsteen convince you:  

"The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind ... The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock'n'roll for ever and ever."
-Bruce Springsteen

2. Ramones - Ramones
There are a lot of punk records that start off with a bang (The Clash and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols certainly spring to mind), but I have to tip my hat and use the Ramones as an example.  How ubiquitous is "Blitzkrieg Bop"?  You tell someone to name off a punk song and anyone who's anyone has a 64.37% chance of saying "Blitzkrieg Bop."  That's the sort of effect it had.  As a title track, it's a blunt instrument that serves as the rallying call of all punk rockers everywhere (of course, it likely attracted more nihilists than activists, but on the whole probably they're one and the same).  The insistent beat, the chugging chords all embody the force of nature, the armament of sheer simplicity and the power of punk music at its finest.  It sets up the breakneck pace of the rest of the record, alongside the sheer brilliance of the Ramones as a whole.

3. Funkadelic - Maggot Brain
This record most closely embodies how catharsis can easily trump direction.  The opener and title track is simply a Eddie Hazel solo over some solemn and arpeggiated guitar.  Which is weird, because Funkadelic is a funk band (obviously).  But the track simply is a masterwork, and it sets the stage for the revival that occurs on the rest of the record.  The legend is that Eddie Hazel was told to play the solo as if he had heard his mama just died, and then at one point to change it so that he found out the rumor wasn't true.  What resulted is the stuff of legends, completely face-melting, cathartic, barn-burning goodness that can only come from true feeling.  I can't explain the song more than that.  Listen for yourself.  But then notice how "Maggot Brain"'s sense of doom finely segues into the feelings of revival evidenced by the rest of the record, and be wowed.

That's all I have the energy for today.  There are modern examples (namely, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" on Arcade Fire's Funeral and "Everything In Its Right Place" on Radiohead's Kid A), but they're hard to come by these days, which breaks my heart.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Radiohead - The King of Limbs [Review] we go.  The King of Limbs.  Let's face it: Radiohead never make an easy record.  To prove my point, I first thought this record was absolute trash except for three songs.  Now?  I think it's pretty damn brilliant outside of the first and last tracks.  Perhaps it's one of those things with Radiohead; their records require time to mature, like a fine wine, for example.  To try to make a snap judgment is to dismiss it too quickly (and then you'll be a fool when you're proven wrong).  And when Radiohead try something different?  That's the norm, but when "different" doesn't sound like what you thought "different" was, it's also way too easy to dismiss when it should be embraced.

The record is a brisk eight songs long (or short?), coming to a short length of less than 40 minutes.  To talk about the sequencing, I think if you lopped off "Bloom" and maybe re-slotted "Separator" somewhere else, the record would be a tight-knit bomb that would explode everyone's heads off with its sheer awesomeness.  I think "Bloom" is a little far too off-kilter and doesn't really get moving anywhere, trading direction for ambient texture.  And, in my most humble opinion, the thing you need the most in a song is direction,  especially for something as critical as the pole position on a record.  "Separator," to me, is a little too lazy.  If there was a little "more" to the track, a little more energy than what there currently is, I think it'd be good, but as it is the job seems "unfinished" when it boils down to it.

And now I'm bloody done griping about the record, because the rest of it is pretty amazing.  "Morning Mr Magpie" has that off-kilter, demonic sense of urgency, while songs such as "Lotus Flower" and "Little By Little" have that trademark groove workout that Radiohead have recently employed to great effect (see: "15 Step" on In Rainbows).  But I think the change-of-pace tunes, "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost" that almost close the record (and if I had any say, would have closed the record) showcase the real power of Radiohead.

Radiohead, at least to me and to basically almost everyone who's anyone, marked a new era in rock music.  Especially with Kid A: they looked at the book of what rock music was, said "what's this?," then tore it up to bits and pieced it together to come up with a new definition of rock music, where electronic and acoustic perfectly merge to form a more perfect whole.  Given this, they've always been masters of texture.  And so on "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost," the texture is slowly piled on until each track reaches a point of absolute catharsis and beauty.  If you aren't moved by those moments, you're probably either dead, a robot or a zombie (take your pick).  Texture has largely been Radiohead's calling card and the real reason to listen to them, and on "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost" they prove once again why, on the whole, they're probably the best rock band out there today, bar none.  And I say this with sorrow as I begin the demoralizing task of deciding where Wilco goes on my list of "the best out there today."

That being said, what score can I give this record?  I find it hard to give it much higher than 88/100 given the general mess that "Bloom" is and how slightly underwhelming "Separator" is.  But that's to say that this record went from "absolutely brilliant" to "almost brilliant" thanks to those two tracks.

And its place in Radiohead canon?  Yeah, another great entry.  It's pretty much impossible to compare to Kid A and OK Computer and probably In Rainbows, but beyond that it's fair game.  My guess is that The Bends still holds major sway, but I'd say The King of Limbs is at least on par with Hail to the Thief and Amnesiac while remaining miles better than Pablo Honey (wait, Pablo Honey was actually Radiohead?  What?!?).  If you look at that numerically, it looks terrible because it's fifth or sixth on the list of Radiohead records, but think about it, folks, this is Radiohead.  They've only made one record that's not to the level of "really damn good" (Pablo Honey, as noted above, was "basically" not Radiohead anyways so you could claim that they've never made a record worse than "really damn good").  So, shut your pie hole, put on a Radiohead record and bask in their brilliance.  I sure am.

So there you have it.  Radiohead - The King of Limbs.  Almost brilliant, which by current standards means "better than almost anything else out there."

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Kinks - The Odd Man Out

Well, I eventually got around to it, right?

Quite simply put, the Kinks have always been the odd man out.  When you look at the big boys in the British Invasion, you have to include the Kinks in the same group as the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who (at the very least because of "You Really Got Me").  But when the invasion had, for all intents and purposes, stagnated, where did they all look to for inspiration?  The Beatles looked to India and all over, the Stones delved even more into the American rhythm and blues, and the Who went for broke by creating modern rock operas.  The Kinks, however, looked back towards where they came from: England.  This was particularly odd, because so much of the 1960s was predicated on the new and looking for new things, bigger and better things.  But to use England for inspiration was decidedly the opposite: they drew their inspiration on the old and the familiar (and for all intents and purposes, the dying) to create (still, folks...still) some of the best music out there today.

I'm not really going to consider much of their British Invasion period.  Great?  All I can say is "duh."  But it's the British Invasion, and it's been beaten to death by others, and I'm not going to beat it to death unless I feel like doing something futile.  I did however, want to consider the aftermath: to see how bands reacted to a virtually post-apocalyptic landscape is far more interesting and telling (and at least to me, I certainly prefer the post-Invasion music, period).

Some say that Ray Davies searched for his new identity in the old, familiar, "smaller" and "common"as a result of the stress that being in the Kinks necessarily entailed (I use quotes here to imply that while perhaps the descriptors can be used, they are not always completely accurate).  It also was, of course, the opposite response of almost every other British Invasion band: the rest went for newer, bigger, and "better" (I use quotes here because newer quite obviously did not imply better...but that was the idea behind their transformations).  But the Kinks forged an identity consisting of old England, of times leaving and dying, of the common people all around, and created some of the most poignant, catchy, and satisfying music ever.  Case in point:

In many ways, the Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was to the Kinks as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was to the Beatles...their apex, their brightest moment in the history of rock music and quite obviously a concept album.  But, of course, both are quite different.  Sgt. Pepper was a record based in timelessness, without any "home," made from the universe and one with it (so to speak).  VGPS was a record steeped in the time period, lamenting the passing of old England as it made way for a new one.  I'm not saying that VGPS is quite nearly as good as Sgt. Pepper, but the distance is closer than one would normally think.  I currently do not remember where I rank the album in my own personal top 30 list, but chances are I ranked it far, far too low.

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is a stone cold classic.  This album is a "lighter" one with very few (if any) tracks that could be considered "heavy," but instead of creating imbalance, it creates balance.  Instead of making it hard to believe the Kinks, it lends authenticity to their treatment of the concept.  But it still is a rock record and it's brilliant.  From the twinkle that kicks off the record (the title track), the "oohs" and "aahs" that punctuate "Picture Book," the music hall that marks "Starstruck," and the overall sense of nostalgia that permeates the record, such as the laments of the passing of the few remaining customs that older England had held onto ("Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" is particularly indicative) that makes the record so good.  The record is wistful, witty, poignant, and moving, all at the same time.

The Kinks were always good at that sort of stuff.  Of all the British Invasion Bands, they were probably the smartest, and were just as good as any other band at the time.  They just chose to look in a different direction.  Perhaps there is a slight chance that I overvalue the Kinks: after all, I spent six months abroad in London, and though London epitomizes the culture that the old England gave way to...they're the most British band I know.  But don't let that get in the way of the music of the Kinks, because the music carries so much meaning and worth that letting any preconceptions cloud your trip through the Kinks would be a disservice.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks: Songs I'm Thankful For

I was going to write about the Kinks, but since it's Thanksgiving, I wanted to just write a brief entry about the songs I have been thankful for since, like, ever (the Kinks do cameo here, however).  I'm going more or less in chronological order of when I found them, or rather when they finally took on special meaning with me.  I'm limiting this list to ten songs, I think.


1. The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket
2. Wilco - Theologians
3. The Beatles - Hey Jude
4. Bon Iver - For Emma
5. Arcade Fire - Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
6. Pavement - Here
7. Big Star - I'm in Love with a Girl
8. The Velvet Underground - Pale Blue Eyes
9. LCD Soundsystem - All I Want
10. The Kinks - Strangers


Have a great Thanksgiving, all ya'll.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: Why They All Go Together

So why do sex, drugs, and rock and roll seem to come hand in hand, kind of like how it's almost impossible to order the B without the L and the T, or any combination thereof?  The most drugged out rockers seem to be most blessed with the gift of rock and roll: Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix were infamous with their use of the horse (i.e. heroin), while others such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop were all about the blow (i.e. cocaine).  But the drugs, in addition to sex, seem to always take precedence or even define the very nature of rock and roll: without the sex and the drugs, rock and roll would not exist at all today, in any way, shape or form.  While hypothetical situations such as that can be debated, the bigger question is "why?"  Why have sex and drugs shaped rock and roll as much as they have?  I think the answer lies in the concept of euphoria.

Sex and drugs are able to foster the highest highs and the lowest lows in a person.  Whether it be a most innocent affection or love (i.e. the Herman's Hermits classic "I'm Into Something Good"), a straight-out depiction of a trip (i.e. "Tomorrow Never Knows" by the Beatles), or something utterly raunchy (like Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On"), they all evidence the same feeling of euphoria, the same complete happiness with one's state.  See also their flip-sides, those moments of pain due to the realization of lost love (Joy Division's masterwork "Love Will Tear Us Apart") the need for drugs (another masterwork, "Heroin" by the Velvet Underground), the evidence for why sex and drugs have been a vital part of the rock and roll livelihood and the basis for its mystique is because that sex and drugs typically bring out the happiest and the saddest in human beings.  Euphoric joy when everything is going right thanks to love, sex, and drugs, and crippling depression when those things leave the rock and roll man with nothing left to live for.

The easiest full-blown examples of those highs and lows lie within the breakup albums: the best examples are Sea Change by Beck, Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.  Ok, so perhaps the last one is a stretch in that order, but if you were in love with your best friend's wife, I'd say that's about equivalent to a breakup, if not worse.  They all evince the same themes: sheer joy, the throes of despair, it's all there, plain to see.  While not really relating completely to the notion of drugs in rock and roll, the emotions they generate are inherently the same.

All the highs and lows would be useless if it weren't for the narrators who reveal the story, reveal the triumphs and the downfalls, and make us feel.  Rock and roll is (usually) about wearing your heart on your sleeve, so we as listeners 100% identify with the narrator of the song, to live with (or through) them during both the good times and the bad; without the capacity to generate empathy, rock would be as cold and forbidding as electronica.  Every emotion is completely represented in the rock and roll psyche, from hope for the best to the realization of dread, from the best party the night before to the raging hangover after: if it were not for the sex and drugs, then those emotions would not be as easy to channel into a rock and roll song, and today we would be left with a most infantile rock and roll genre of music, which would honestly be terrible, not only to say that this blog would likely be nonexistent if that were true.

That is not to say that sex and drugs are the only things that go together with rock and roll.  Virtually anything could go together with rock and roll, given that it makes those rampant emotions easy to generate, bottle up and unleash in a rock and roll song.  Sex and drugs are simply the easiest ways to tap into that reserve of our emotions and connect us to them, because they're things many of us have to grapple with.  For example, gospel/worship music (I have somehow referred to them very often the past couple of entries when the previous year I'd not mentioned them at all) derives all its euphoric highs and debilitating lows from the relationship between the singer/listener and God.  But for the non-religious, it's certainly harder for one to relate to their plight; whereas most everyone battles with sex and drugs, not everyone battles with the nature of their relationship with God.

For the rest of rock and roll's existence, it will probably still be forever bundled with sex and drugs.  Probably for the better, sex and drugs more easily made emotions easier to access for rock and roll: the barest confessionals, the unabashed statements of love and the hilarious tales of hangovers or adventures would simply not exist without them.  Am I implicitly condoning the rampant use of sex and drugs?  I hope not, as excessive use of either is simply self-destructive.  I'm merely pointing out that the history of rock and roll shows that for better or for worse, sex and drugs were tightly interwoven into the fabric of rock and roll, and perhaps in some ways as rock and roll glorified and brought out the best in sex and drugs, sex and drugs glorified and brought out the best in rock and roll.