Saturday, February 20, 2010

Playlist: Post-Rock

The Car's On Fire, And There's No Driver At The Wheel...

If Marilyn Manson was right when he declared Rock dead, post-rock is its aftermath. As I posted on my review of a recent Do Make Say Think concert, that show revived my longtime interest in the genre, and prompted by a friend's curiosity, I've taken it upon myself to bring it a little attention.

Like any "genre," as these songs will show, it's incredibly diverse, and difficult to put into a box. On its many corners, it shares borders with jazz, pop, classical, folk, punk and certainly much more - and the result is incredibly colorful and sophisticated. It's a reminder of times when latching on to the avant was easier to do.

There are some distinct traits that bind the genre together. Songs tend to be very long, and are often instrumental. While based upon rock instrumentation, many artists augment it with horns, pianos, strings, and other classical instruments. Structurally, the bands aspire to deconstruct rock, borrowing from the complex sequencing of classical music. When they do so, they often build songs with the dramatic dynamics of 19th-century Romantic composers. And like many sub-genres, it has flourished under the patronage and influence of a cutting-edge independent label, Montreal-based Constellation Records.

I love this stuff. I hope you enjoy.

Sigur Rós - Glósóli
Album: Takk
EMI, 2006

Perhaps no band builds drama and tension so delicately and explosively as Iceland's Sigur Rós. I think this video complements the song beautifully. Its climax is never loud enough. This ought to make a fairly accessible introduction.

Tortoise - Crest
Album: It's All Around You
Thrill Jockey, 2004

Tortoise hails from Chicago - Close enough to Canada. This band, in my opinion, represents the apex of the genre's complexity. Of the many bands I've seen live, their musicianship is among the most impressive.

Explosions In The Sky - Yasmin the Light
Album: Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever
Temporary Residence Limited, 2001

Austin's Explosions in the Sky, using traditional rock instrumentation, play heavily with contrasting dynamics, just restrained enough not to edge out their subtleties, but bold enough to bring a satisfying listen. Their live show is among the most energetic I've seen.

Mogwai - Thank you Space Expert
Album: The Hawk Is Howling
Wall of Sound (UK), Matador (US), 2008

It's ill-advised to show up to a Mogwai concert without earplugs, but if they're the last thing you ever hear, it wouldn't be a bad way to finish. As this song shows, while often being absurdly loud, this Scottish band has tremendous talent for melody and atmosphere.

Do Make Say Think - Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Album: Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn
Constellation, 2003

Toronto's Do Make Say Think show the kinder, gentler side of Canadian post-rock. Their songs, while experimental, are beautiful, restrained, and carry an innocent, feel-good vibe.

Broken Social Scene - Passport Radio
Album: Feel Good Lost
Noise Factory, 2001

Modeled as a musical collective, Toronto's Broken Social Scene have somehow morphed between post-rock and indie pop without ever losing touch with their artistic direction. While it's tempting to post their much more accessible later work (OK, I can't resist, you should really listen to This, This, & This), BSS's first album shows how founders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning began their project firmly rooted in experimental, patently Canadian post-rock.

A Silver Mt. Zion - God Bless Our Dead Marines
Album: Horses In The Sky
Constellation, 2005

An uplifting song from Montreal's A Silver Mt. Zion, an experimental band founded by a member of post-rock mainstay Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It's yet another example of Constellation Records' impact on the genre.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - The Dead Flag Blues
Album: F#A#∞
Constellation, 1997

Motherfucker = Redeemer, Part 2
Album: Yanqui U.X.O.
Constellation, 2002

We're trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death...

To know Godspeed is to know post-rock. It's not easy to find an earlier, deeper and more inaccessible pioneer of the genre. Relying on samples and spoken word for lyrical content, but ultimately leaning on their instrumentation, Godspeed's music conveys plaintive images of violence, brutality and darkness (The album cover of Yanqui U.X.O., with its image of falling bombs on a beautiful, green countryside, says it all). Yet, couched in such sadness, the music itself is a distant glimmer of hope and optimism, even if not a very bright one. I've purposely started out with more accessible music, but if you want to know what post-rock is, I challenge every one of my readers to put on a pair of headphones, sit in a dark room, and listen to both these songs from beginning to end, perhaps when you would otherwise be watching TV or playing video games. Your time will be well spent.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Playlist: Best Breakup Songs Ever?

OK, I'm not trying to one-up my sister or anything, but she has compiled this great list of breakup songs (Here for the Facebook-inclined). Today being Valentine's day, I thought it appropriate to make one of my own. Sorry, I know this might seem sadistic, but seriously, if you're feeling lovelorn today, I think these songs will make you feel better. Some of her choices would make my list, but in addition, I recommend:

"Headless Horseman" by The Microphones:

"The Face of the Earth" by Dismemberment Plan:

"Let It Die" by Feist:

"Love Burns" by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:

"The Big U" by The Blow:

"Campus" by Vampire Weekend:

And Last But Not Least:
"Valentine" by Old 97's

Enjoy! This hasn't been a fun holiday for me since puberty, and if you're the same way, hope this does something for you.

Album Review: Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy

There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill
Warner Bros., 2009

Paul's Rating: 7.5/10

It would be unfair, absolutely a curse, for any band, to have Perfect From Now On in their discography. When you make an album like that, everything else you release is forever measured against it. With that in mind, the irony of that album's title is almost too much to bear. What a different time that was. "Indie rock" was not yet a pop culture fad in 1997. Back then, I didn't even know it existed. If "Indie" was ever a style, Built to Spill might have been its poster child. They're still generally categorized as such, even though they've been on a major label since that album's release. Yet clearly, Warner Bros. was not constraining BTS's creativity.

Even under those constraints, There Is No Enemy holds its own. True, nothing they've released since Perfect quite has that album's edge, but that's setting the bar impossibly high. If Perfect is any indicator of whatever kind of psychic tourism this band may have been engaged in, Enemy continues the trend. "Inside my mind, incessant chatter / When will these brain cells cut me some slack / Maybe I'm not smart enough to think of things to think about that matter / Afraid that once you think some things, there's no going back," frontman Doug Martsch sings in "Good Ol' Boredom." I think that's how he keeps things interesting, even though there are moments in this album when Built to Spill shows some slight wear with age. "Finally decided, and by decide I mean accept / i don't need all those of the chances i won't get," Martsch sings on "Life's a Dream."

Nonetheless, on songs like "Pat," BTS show they can still rock out with their cocks out. On their previous album, they proved it with epic 8-minute opener "Goin' Against Your Mind," but following that song, that album had a few that were a little droopy. Overall, Enemy is on a more even keel, and feels like it has a little more depth. It's no less than I would expect from a band I've seen live at least 6 times. A band that opened up a lot of musical doors for me once or twice in a very hot-boxed WOW Hall in Eugene, Oregon. Nice to see their originality is still going strong.

I wish I'd bought this one on vinyl, because the LP comes with CD copy (no jewel case) and boasts all-analog production, but alas, I bought it on CD.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Live: Do Make Say Think: Seattle, WA 2/5/10

Do Make Say Think - Chop Suey, Seattle, WA 2/5/10
Plus guests: The Happiness Project, Years

Before this show, I got into a conversation with some co-workers about why Post-Rock may have fallen out of the vogue. I posited a theory. These being difficult, stressful times for so many people, I think a lot of us, myself included, have taken solace and escape in the predictability and instant gratification of pop music. It did seem people were more excited about this stuff midway through the last decade. We may have been just as broke and pissed-off during the Bush years, but at least we knew what we were up against. Nonetheless, Canadians like Do Make Say Think seem happily unfazed by this trend, and encouragingly, quite a few Seattleites are still willing to vibe out to large bands playing 20-minute-long, unpredictable, instrumental deconstructions of Rock itself (Any less than 8 members in your band, one member mused, and they don't let you across the Canada-U.S. border).

Even more impressive, considering how DMST is one of the least accessible bands of this genre. While not quite so dangerously flirting with free-form jazz odysseys as Tortoise, DMST tease with their rising crescendos, pulling back from them in places where Mogwai or Sigur Ros would have taken the opportunity to blow your head off. DMST's songs are not easy to follow, but if you can manage, you realize the song structures are quite deliberate.

The highlight for me, however, was the experimental "opener" featuring members of DMST, The Happiness Project. The music was built around recordings of interviews with several people, mostly on the concept of playing instruments to the melodies of their speech. A saxophone for an old woman talking about love and happiness. A violin for a 3-year-old girl having a minor tantrum. "It's like a reverse auto-tune," I overheard an audience member aptly describe it. Most moving was a song built around an interview with a woman who had been deaf her entire life and had a cochlear implant as an adult, describing what it was like to hear sound for the first time. "All of a sudden, I felt my body moving in sound," she says. Brilliant stuff. DMST guitarist/bassist/saxophonist/flutist Ohad Benchetrit followed with his solo project, Years, mostly comprised of beautiful solo acoustic instrumentals.

I do admire how jovial and chatty the band members were on stage. While so often I crave some rock-star mystique, Do Make Say Think were refreshingly accessible in their demeanor, letting their music and multi-instrumental prowess speak for themselves. They were having fun. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Album Review: Beach House - Teen Dream

Teen Dream
Beach House
Sub Pop, 2010

Paul's Rating: 8/10

Dreaminess is Beach House's specialty. So much so that they're one of those rare bands that has stamped its sound as patently its own. What's even rarer is for an artist to do so without being pigeon-holed in their own creation. Having achieved the former, the Baltimore duo venture into further explorations of their sound in their 3rd LP. This being a stage of awkward adolescence in any career, the title seems descriptive of the band itself. Especially for one that never bothered having a sophomore slump.

The album itself is more adult. Victoria Legrand sings, "Don't forget the nights when it all felt right / Are you not the same as you used to be?" If she's referring to teenage experience, it's a retrospective look.

It doesn't hurt to have such a firestorm of talent as singer/keyboardist Legrand at the helm, and under her lead, Beach House show they're willing to try new things. It's not effortless, but they prove they carry two traits that make (or, if absent, break) a career: Great artistic ambition, and the lack of a single gimmicky note in their songs.

Mostly, Beach House stick to what's worked so well for them thus far: Legrand's sultry, low alto voice. Gentle drum-machine beats. Crawling tempos. Layers of thick, droning keyboard work. Clean, reverb-heavy electric guitar arpeggios. Until now, they have exercised this sound with restraint, lending a folksy appeal to their very electronic sound.

Teen Dream, unlike 2007's Devotion, makes some risky moves into more complex, dramatic territory. Swelling crescendos and soaring synth-strings appear, augmented with live percussion. Some folk appeal is lost, but the execution is never indulgent. "10 Mile Stereo" is the highest-flying song. It's late in the album, a climax, not a showpiece.

That being said, part of the magic of Devotion was Legrand's ability to create tension and drama with the sublest inflection of her voice or a shift in chord progressions. Having heard that before, one might question whether it was necessary to tug any harder on the heartstrings.

Whatever criticism might be due, there are moments of brilliance that erase any notion of this being less than a great album. Legrand's gift for melody and composition blossoms, and while firmly in command, she melds with Alex Scally's guitar work better than ever. While containing tracks more accessible than Devotion's, even its less catchy songs are the kind that grow on you eventually, and in the end, they're the most rewarding.

For the vinyl aficionado, Teen Dream is a real treat. It's double heavy-duty discs in a gatefold jacket, and while the outside artwork is nothing eye-popping, the interior is beautifully designed. It includes a coupon for an MP3 download direct from Sub Pop, plus a DVD with music videos for most of the tracks.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Hello World

This is a brave time to get into reviewing music, I know. A few years ago, I had the sense that there was major movement happening among people who loved music. That is, people who placed its artistic value above its entertainment value, who took interest in a more diverse musical landscape than the major labels had to offer. While the majors collapsed under their own weight, all the while kicking and screaming and pointing their fingers at Napster, I began to take notice just how much interesting stuff there was out there. I've long suspected that major labels' war on piracy had little to do with revenue lost on CD sales (not that it didn't matter) and much to do with the fact that people were suddenly exposed to a far greater diversity of music driven by word of mouth, making the music industry's traditional marketing channels obsolete.

What I do know is that I wasn't the only one reveling in this discovery. There was a period when my brother, a friend of ours and myself were traveling once, twice a week, ignoring our need for sleep, to Portland to join packed venues for the likes of Spoon, The New Pornographers, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade (the list goes on, of course). We reluctantly accepted the "Indie Rock" label, not because it was descriptive of the music itself, but because it was the easiest way to give a name to this something that was happening. That something was fresh, authentic, decidedly un-commercial and fearlessly optimistic. For young, creative people disgusted by a commercial culture that seemed bent on lowering our expectations, it was amazing to see so many like-minded people in one place.

There's another side to that coin. Any time a subculture starts to seem cool, corporate America takes notice and people start to latch on for coolness alone. I secretly enjoy hearing songs I like in iPod commercials, but it does worry me that this might erode the music's message. While it's encouraging to see more people embracing more sophisticated tastes in music, it's easier to listen to music than it is to pick up the mantle of its cultural ethos. And inevitably, the big backlash ensues, alienating those of us who genuinely take bone-quivering pleasure in music most people think is weird. Throw in a nasty recession, and voila, the wind vanishes from our sails.

Well, not entirely. I think that's the beautiful thing about it. People keep expressing their talents, and new ideas keep emerging. It just gets a little harder to cut through the crap and find the stuff that's really meaningful. I take the perspective that art never exists in a vacuum - it's inexorably tied to culture, culture, culture. What warrants any value judgment is how authentically it expresses its originating ethos, and within that framework, how worthwhile the direction its message pushes its recipients.

If I can offer one fearless insight into my blog's future, it will be this: Most of my reviews will be overwhelmingly positive. Nobody's giving me any free advance records (yet). I don't have the time nor the money to review everything I might want to or buy every new album. Within these limitations, I don't buy an album or go to a concert unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to like it.Yes, I'll let you know if I'm disappointed.

Also, my postings will probably be only occasional, but if you're a friend or family member, I'll let you know when I write something new.

Keep reading. I hope you enjoy.

P.S. If I die, or for any other reason am unable to renew my domain name, please visit my blog via (