Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand
|This is another one of those albums, just like Interpol, where the only thing you really know about them is the single you've heard on the radio a million times. And on TV commercials. And in the grocery store. And cell phone rings. So I was quite happily surprised when I put the CD in and a soft acoustic half-sung ditty came on, suddenly transforming into a chaotic guitar instrumental that goes right into the chorus straight into the bridge, and back to the chorus, then ends. Man, the song went so fast it feels like it's missing something that's usually there. |
Franz Ferdinand, at least from what I heard, was part of this group of bands (The Killers, Hot Hot Heat, Interpol) that was somehow suppose to herald some kind of revival of "garage rock" - whatever that is. Really, terms like this are made up, or at least encouraged, by the record companies. The reason of course is that they'd like the "genre" to catch on so they can safely lump a certain number of bands into that genre, making a larger number of bands a "sure thing." But Franz Ferdinand is really just guitar-oriented rock and roll.
And it's pretty good rock and roll, at that. More than that, it is ridiculously catchy - sometimes too catchy. Songs like "Dark of the Matinee" will have you humming the title of the song all day. But the problem is that it's not entirely inspiring. The problem with this album is that despite the songwriting talent behind it, the real moments of brilliance tend to be few. The lyrics are pretty good, but only in that simplistic way that you can only get away with in rock and roll, for example, on "Jacqueline", the hook is "It's so much better on holiday / That's why we only work when we need the money."
It's unfortunate that Franz Ferdinand was so overplayed on the radio, because otherwise I might have given this CD a chance when it came out. "Take Me Out" is an excellent song, but you can only take so much of it. If you liked it the first time you heard it, and you like your rock music a little poppier, go buy it from store. If you're like me, maybe go to a used place or something, because as good as this album is, it's not great, and I can use that extra $4 to get some Jimmy John's.
|So take Interpol, right? Get 'em off the heroin and inject them with whatever the Scissor Sisters are on, and give 'em a smarmy-sexy vocalist in the Tom Jones mold, and make 'em Scottish. In three easy steps you've transmuted lead into gold. |
FF's music isn't exactly breathtaking in its originality, but to knock 'em for that would be to miss the point. This is good pop music, animated with style -- rhythms, riffs, even tempos change WITHIN THE SAME SONG (pay attention, Interpol!) and the lyrics are suavely entertaining. The hooks are all in place, most of the songs on the album are catchy enough to get stuck in your head for days, and the disco beats are absolutely shameless. The fact that they pretend to be german is also oddly endearing. It's four-piece rock but each piece contributes something -- the drummer is lively, tight and versatile, the bass player is funky (at times) and the guitarist is dissonant and messy in that happy pop way. In this way, through the magic of enthusiasm and variety, straightforward becomes cool.
Some songs are better than others. The distorted vocals on "Cheating On You" drag down what could have been an excellent rocker, and dance-punk disco number "This Fire" goes on a few minutes too long and contains the line "Now, there is a fire in me; a fire that burns!" (As opposed to...?) But the quality is remarkably consistent for a debut album. And the standout songs, like "The Dark Of The Matinee", "Darts Of Pleasure" and "Michael", make you want to dance and giggle at the same time. Alex Kapranos wants to make love to you -- no matter your age or gender -- and I'm not sure you'll be able to stop him. How can you resist a man who rhymes "dance floor" with "dance whore" and is apparently capable of undressing your eyes with his lips? By the time the album closes with the appallingly cool strut of "40 Feet", which has choruses that sound like they came off a Serge Gainsbourg album or a Bond movie, you will be his entirely.
Art school bands just get me, OK? And Scottish bands. And bands that have a defined visual aesthetic to go with their music (1920s-era Russian graphic design. It is to die for.) Buy it and dig the punk and disco.
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VA: DFA Compilation #2
|People just love being different. Some people wear really outrageous clothing. Maybe some people are really into artsy films or concept/performance art. Others are so different they wear shirts proclaiming that they mock the rest of us for being the same. There's nothing wrong with being into something unique, just like there's nothing wrong with not. But people have an instinct for judging something not on its merits, but rather on its popularity. |
This is not a new idea, of course: teenage girls will usually like the top 40 hit of the day because it's the popular thing to do, and Pitchfork Media will gobble something up because it's so non-mainstream and just so totally off the wall that this has to be the most brilliant work in the world. We're all guilty of this at one time or another. The problem is that this doesn't help the music at all. When you start thinking about what you should like instead of what you do like, it basically becomes politics and enters this all-too-familiar world where buzz alone can sustain or kill art.
Upon starting up this compilation, I was treated to a 15 minute "dance" track ("Causal Friday") that has sounded like a bad imitation of The Tom Tom Club's "Genius Of Love." It looks like the "What will you do when you get out of jail? I'm gonna have some fun!" girls have new work repeating "Bonjour, bonjour, como tallez vous?" on this track. (The "JAMES BROOWWWWN" guy is nowhere to be seen. Maybe he died?) But the thing is that none of the songs on this album come even close to this level of stupidity. It's as if someone put it there at the beginning to keep people out, like a Cerebus (this is quite fitting, as the last half of the song features three goofy bastards singing some silly things about taking off their dress or something). It's as if to say, "Man, if you can't handle this song, you just don't get it, man, so just forget about it!""
The rest of the comp didn't approach the first song in terms of wackiness, even "Yeah (Prententious Mix)". There are some goofy lyrics, but they aren't too over the top, and the album is actually pretty accessible. Really, it sounds like the kind of dance music that Dr. Demento listeners could really get into: it's not wacky and off-the-wall like Weird Al, but things like sampled boxing bells, cool robot songs, and a certain level of surrealness might attract that kind of crowd. But what might draw those people in even more is the fact that this music sounds like it's just people having fun with their craft.
Unfortunately, having fun with it doesn't always make it good. There are some pretty cool tracks on the 3-CD comp set, and there are some pretty stupid ones. I'm not a techno person, but I even find myself wanting to listen to a couple of these, so my suggestion is you go find a cool hipster, borrow this from them, and burn it.
|Here's an idea -- a three hour label compilation that features five or six bands, several of whom are (I'm convinced) the same person wearing a different hat -- and each of those five or six bands only get to contribute two or three songs, each of which is then mercilessly remixed and repeated several times. Does that sound like your idea of a good time? |
This album goes under the general heading of dancepunk, which was one of two Next Big Things in 2004 (the other being something nebulous called Freak Folk.) Both of these "scenes" came out of New York. The idea behind dancepunk is that it's dance music that hipsters can dance to without being ironic because it's, like, edgy. It features slightly weirder electronic noises than most dance music. Or it's covered with a fine, crunchy layer of disaffection. The opening track of this album, "Casual Friday", is fifteen minutes of dance music created by people (the Black Leotard Front, who I am convinced are the same people as LCD Soundsystem, who are I think the same people who're doing all the remixing, and probably also !!!) who sound unutterably bored with what they're doing. Three minutes in I can relate. The song "Yeah,", which is nine minutes long and repeated three goddamn times, is the most offensively lifeless piece of electro it has ever been my displeasure to hear. You get three basic styles of music on this album: straight up dance techno courtesy of acts like The Juan Maclean, which might be interesting to aficionados but which leaves me twitchy and irritable, jangly, retarded noise-with-a-beat courtesy of of groups like Pixeltan and J.O.Y, who yelp like Gang Gang Dance but who end up sounding brainless rather than ecstatic or insane, and (thank god) vaguely interesting music courtesy of the Rapture and Black Dice. I'll talk about them so I don't have to listen to the rest of if anymore.
"Alabama Sunshine", a track by the Rapture which mercifully escapes the remix treatment, is my favorite thing on this album because it's weird and crazy and you can dance to it but it's obviously motivated by some genuine creative force. It's varied, and played by people with actual instruments. The lead yelper of the band brings great ululation and the song veers from filthy, filthy dance to children's television theme song without missing a beat. On "Endless Happiness", Black Dice take the driving bongo rhythms that propel many other songs on this album into brain-peeling drivel by minute six and keep things interesting by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the sonic landscape and thereby communicating something other than "move your skinny little ass, hipster spawn. For it is fashionable this season." Black Dice are evocative and atmospheric -- the Rapture are creative and individual. The fact that I have to point this out should tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the bands on this compilation. The disease of irony runs deep here... much of this is music pulled off with a great deal of technical skill, which has just been rendered terribly unpleasant by artists who are unwilling to put something genuine into their sound. It bops by without a soul, yo. Without a soul!
Skip this overpriced drivel and seek out Black Dice and the Rapture. Or Gang Gang Dance and the Animal Collective. The side of the 2004 New York scene with heart to go with their chops.
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TV on the Radio: Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
|This album title has a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, throughout the entire album, I never really conjured images of desperate youth or blood thirsty babes. I did, however, think of a bunch of friends in someone's basement with a bitchin' distorted bass and some saxophones that haven't really practiced the songs a whole lot. It made me annoyed enough that I'll complain about it right up front: enough with the bass. On most of the songs, the bass plays, with this junk-sounding distortion, plays a pedal tone that is way to far up in the mix. It sounded cool when Robert Sledge distorted his bass, but this just adds a layer of crap on all the songs that is on. Instead they should just have a constant brown noise playing in the background and make the bass player learn how to play the damn thing. |
It's a shame that the band decided that "gritty" was the tone they were going for, because I think that production choice has a negative effect on the album. In the hands of a producer with more subtlety, I think that this album could really have succeeded. I would also really like to see these guys live. If you can get past that stuff, the songs can really be a treat to listen to (depending on your mood of course). Despite having no songs less than 5 minutes long (they are more like 8 minutes though), the songs don't really get old and feel about half the length they really are. They can be pretty catchy at times, too. On "Dreams," which features a raw drum loop and tremolo synth, the vocals really come out clearly, and the chorus sticks like tar to your brain.
The best songs on the album are the ones where things are clear instead of sounding like muck. Sometimes things also sound quite amateurish in a grating way. "King Eternal" has some pretty awful singing, and "Ambulance" has a silly acapella bass line. But again with the bad comes good, like "Poppy" which is a beautifully textured song, but then during the breakdown comes a silly acappella bit. The singing on this album is a bit sketchy. Normally they sing really well, but it just sounds bad in a few places. "Wear You Out" is frustrating because it starts off slow, but gets really interesting towards the end with an acid-jazz flute part.
I actually like this album a little, but there are too many problems for me to recommend that anyone actually buy it. Of course, I am used to dealing with my own demo tapes, so I can deal with music that is less than produced.
|"Infinity's hourglass will measure us|
so, Power, cover your balls
'cause we swing kung fu."
I have beef with this album. It does not adequately convey the sheer power that TVOR brings live. This is partially because it was recorded right before they added their touring drummer and bass player to their lineup permanently, and thus lacks that organic fire, and partially because everything is taken a little too slowly and deliberately. This suits the smooth stately flow of the last third of the album fine, but the first songs need extra kick to really come alive. As it is, what ought to inspire can simply drag.
That's what's wrong with the album. What's right with the album is this:
TVOR have two amazing vocalists, consistently great lyrics, and a guitarist/beatmaker/sound texture operative who brings the best of the new york noise milieu (witness the opening seconds of the album, where jazz saxophone and clarinet blend sweetly with what sounds like a dying refrigerator on steroids.) They incorporate rock, soul, dub, reggae, a capella and even that most underused indie rock trope, slow jamz. Along with a bunch more touchstones I don't recognize but which I suspect derive from black pop music from the 70s. And at their best they have a style which is all they're own, which is difficult to describe, because it makes you want to dance and has a roiling, inescapable beat and heavy bass but it isn't light and disposable enough to be dance music. They put out an EP in 2003 which was close to perfection; this album is a little less consistent and the production, as I mentioned, seems slightly flat at times, but there is much treasure to be had.
Take the song that I quoted at the top, "King Eternal". They're calling down a new messiah with the power of multitracking. I am at a loss to explain how a song which consists of nothing but an extremely heavy and distorted four-to-the-floor bass line, swirls of megaprocessed guitar noise and a very minimal digital beat can soar like this. Much credit goes to the vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who paint the noise shiny with their falsettos, and the genius realization that against all logic you can push a four-chord song to the next level by lopping off two of the chords at the bridge. And then we come immediately to "Ambulance", which is a beautiful little love song scored only for street noise and layers of smooth vocals. It's doo-wop for the 21st century.
This is why we need more black Americans making rock music, by the way. TVOR bring a range of vital influences to their music that we don't see a lot on the contemporary scene and thus make music that sounds like nothing else. It is wonderful on the closing track of this album to be given an old-fashioned soul serenade with the noise/rock chops to keep it interesting and vital.
So you can probably tell from my gushing that I want you to buy this album. You might be well-advised to save your money for the next one, though -- "Return to Cookie Mountain" comes out in the US this week and from what I've heard of it comes closer to capturing their live wall of sound.
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Modest Mouse: Good News For People Who Love Bad News
|Finally! The first album on the list that I own and enjoy. Since I've already made up my mind about this album, I guess my job is tell you why I think so. Modest Mouse is a band that was lucky enough to really come up with a unique sound. Mostly defined by Isaac Brock's unique voice, and echoey guitar that is usually melody-driven rather than by strumming chords (this way of playing is comparable to Death Cab, but such a comparison has too much baggage and might be confusing). |
The truth is that Modest Mouse is the conceptual heir to The Pixies, but with a more open mentality towards production and instrumentation. But the attitude that made The Pixies great is present in Modest Mouse. The best example of this is on one of the best songs on the record, "Bury Me With It," that goes from half-singing over a bass line to seriously hard rocking in the blink of an eye without a single power chord. Therefore, the key to Modest Mouse really lies in the drumming. Before this album, Jeremiah Green had left the band for a short time and was replaced by Benjamin Weikel, who does a phenomenal job, but Green is a really excellent drummer as well and the changes in the band's character on this album are due in part to the change in drumming.
The other real strength of Modest Mouse are the lyrics. Modest Mouse has a real gift for writing deceptively simple lyrics that are the best kind of wordplay - somewhere in between a pun and poetry. The album's title, "Good News For People Who Love Bad News," is a great example of this. In concert, I've seen them introduce a song as "a true story as told by a liar." Their lyrics flow like a really good yarn-teller and work perfectly in rock music - they sound great on whatever level you want to listen to them. The problem with a lot of bands is that their lyrics don't offer much to the casual listener - you can't understand what they are saying or they are lyrics that sound good, might be pretty or poetic, but fail on a third level - the best kind of lyrics also can be like a story. Even if they aren't a story, they still unfold like one.
I've also heard this album panned because of accusations of "selling out" - a concept which should be considered a joke by now. The album does have a completely different character from previous albums, but this is something that I am grateful for. I would be pretty disappointed if they put out another album that sounded like Moon and Antarctica. This album isn't as good as that one, but it's still damn good. Sometimes the Modest Mouse guitar tone seems out of place on a few songs (in Float On it sounds like a cameo, or like it was sampled somehow). It also has some negative points - the horn bits are a little silly (and in fact all the interludes are, especially the grave digging one), and Dance Hall is just about the worst thing in the world. It really sucks that it's so early on in the album, because it comes before so many good songs.
Buy this album, especially if you don't own a Modest Mouse album.
|Welcome to DOUBLE LENGTH REVIEW MADNESS. I feel strongly about this one. |
Isaac Brock and his bandmates come from a little logging town in Oregon. When Isaac was 18 they released an album called "This Is A Long Drive For Somone With Nothing To Think About." It was jangly and sprawling and occasionally unlistenable but there were moments of such forceful, angry brilliance that the album penetrated the consciousness of the northwest music scene and even in my relatively unhip public high school people said "Modest Mouse" the same way they said "Radiohead". They were drunk at every show -- they were violent and dangerous and incredibly american and Brock was obviously off his nut. It was raw rock and roll history and it promised much.
In 2000 they put out an album called "The Moon And Antarctica" which delivered on that promise -- a staggering, thematically cohesive chunk of music at once forward-looking and classic about paranoia, isolation, and mental illness drenched in Brock's weird drug-addled mysticism. He chanted, mumbled, and screamed, and his trademark trembling 'verbed-out guitar lines stayed in your head for days.
Four empty years passed. The band lost their drummer, sobered up and moved to Portland. They started work on an album without all the doom and madness in the lyrics, they got major label production values, and they got major radio play on the first single.
So keep in mind when you read this review that I am fighting every indie snob impulse I have by not immediately shitcanning this sucker.
This is not nearly as good an album as Moon and Antarctica, but it's not bad, either -- Brock is a true talent, and his decision here to move in a more positive, polished direction is intentional and thoroughly considered (check the screamingly appropriate album title.) Many of the songs on the album are variations on the lyrical theme 'hey, things could be worse', which is best summed up in the following lines from the swampy, swinging "Bukowski:"
"Every day it seems to me A little bit more like Bukowski And yeah I guess he's a pretty good read But who would want to be, Who would want to be such an asshole?"
or, even more bluntly:
"If life's not beautiful without the pain, I'd rather never see beauty again."
It's probably a really healthy move on Brock's part to get saner in his creative work. The problem is that this leaves him without a clear thematic direction, and that leaves him with a wildly uneven product. This album has great indie rock songs, like the truly kickass "Bury Me With It" -- radio-ready inspirational anthems that will get stuck in your head but will make you very angry indeed after a while ("Float On") -- and songs that are weirdly a little bit of each, like "The View", which has a great funky verse and then a chorus that feels like it was lifted from a Postal Service b-side -- and a few real stinkers, like "Dance Hall".
That last is a nice little showpiece for everything that's wrong with the album. The production is completely over the top (what in the world possessed them to take the main guitar line, pan it hard right and then accompany it in unison on the left with a freakin' xylophone?) Brock's growls and gargles don't seem to come from any real emotion -- he seems to be shouting because he always used to and he has a nifty voice for it, not because he has anything in particular to shout about. And the lyrics are limp and uninspired. If Modest Mouse keep heading in this direction they're going to end up sounding like Tom Waits Lite -- "The Devil's Work day" is Waits-y to the point of parody. There are many points on this album where gimmicks that rung true in the past just seem silly, like when he mentions the "evil me" in "Bukowski" and suddenly he's croaking into the mic two octaves down. And lord help me it gets bad toward the end. But there's enough really good stuff on the album to counterbalance that, even if it all suffers to differing degrees from the same issues that "Dance Hall" does.
I'm in a weird position trying to sum up here, cause while I will freely admit some of this stuff is better than 90 percent of the albums we've looked at so far I'll probably never want to listen to it again. Part of that is that I like Brock better as the cracked poet of the highway and the tenement than as the inspirational balladeer or for the love of god the unbearably derivative old-timey folk psycho, even if that's where he needs to go at this point in his artistic development. But mostly it's that this is manifestly a transitional album, unformed and uneven. So with the greatest respect for Isaac Brock and his band I'd recommend that you skip this album and get the previous one. And the next one. It should be interesting to see where he goes.
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