1/31/10

My favourite albums of the decade #13

Oh lord. Oh lordy lord. January 31st, and less than halfway through this baleful undertaking. Cripes. A change of tack might be necessary at this juncture. I'm going to return to my usual dribblings about this, that, and whatnot, during the coming weeks and only return to this list (which has a life of its own and thinks it owns my blog now) when it calls out to me. In the meantime, here's a quickie - unlucky number 13.

#13 Aphex Twin - Drukqs (2001)
Drukqs is one of Richard D. James's masterpieces. But this status was hard earned. Prior to its release, and on the back of the excitement generated by the extraordinary Windowlicker single, fans and critics were expecting this double album to be some sort of psychedelic tablet from mount aciiiieeed - a towering work of electronic genius that was going to, like, fuckin redefine shit, maan. Yet, as far as I can remember, almost everyone felt let down by it. A lot of people became very angry about this album. Some found it too backward looking, others found it too unwieldy (it is perhaps deliberately ironic that Drukqs is in the Guinness book of records for being the world's 'heaviest' record after being pressed on mega-dense vinyl for some special releases), and yet others found it too all-over-the-shop, veering as it does between quasi-classical ambient piano, creaking musique concrete, and cortex-raping drill and bass.

Time, that most chaff-filtering critic, has been a kind judge of Drukqs, however. Freed from the nuclear levels of nerdlingering expectation that accompanied its release, it strikes me as an apt capstone for the catalogue of a shape-shifting uber-stylist. Not only that, but the music feels profoundly personal and emotionally honest. Aphex's melty grinning demon mask of old drops to reveal a mind preoccupied with creating moments of deep tenderness and melancholy. There is so much in Drukqs that stirs me. As ever with the man, there's an essential weirdness (in the proper Shakespearean sense of the word) at work too, a sort of striving towards something ancient and veiled, that same primordial brain-cave embodied by the hieroglyphic Aphex Twin logo on his second Selected Ambient Works album cover. Formidable stuff.

MP3: Aphex Twin-Jynweythek Ylow

1/19/10

my favourite albums of the decade #14 (or whither the melodie penned bryte and prettie as a gem yet set 'twixt th'muddy fruits o' th'bowels)

Times New Viking - Rip it Off (2008)

"What the fuck IS this shite?"
"Is the car radio broken?"
"Is this a tape? It sounds completely mangled"
"Why can't you go on itunes and pay to download albums at 320bps you scabby bollocks?"

When 'Rip it off' came out a couple of years ago (and when I was somehow a better writer, it seems) I decided that Teen Drama was my third favourite song of the year. I also decided that its mother album, Times New Viking's  'Rip it off', was patchy. I reckon I was right about Teen Drama, but as for 'Rip it off' being patchy? No sir. In retrospect, I gladly admit massive margins or wrongheaded judgement on these lads (and Beth). 'Rip it off' isn't patchy. In fact, it's a flippin' masterpiece of a sort. A great cracked monument to the lo-fi revival which emerged in American indie-rock over the last few years, 'Rip it Off' juts confidently from what already looks like dated midden of mediocre, flyblown bands who misguidedly valued form ahead of content in a genre where, to succeed, you need some solid gemstones of songs before you can go about coating them in interesting layers of textured crud. In music, there's not much artistic merit in polishing a turd but, as Times New Viking prove, in some cases it might be worth smearing a few interesting streaks of muck over something that shines.

And what about the received wisdom that said record sounds rough as chips? Um, yes, I can't argue that point, it really does sound rough as fuck, or "challenging" if you like euphemisms. For me, parts of 'Rip it off' initially sounded blasted and corroded beyond sense. So much so, that, in spite of my former teenage self's long nursing at the gritty teat of Guided By Voices' utterly treble-destroyed opus 'Vampire on Titus' (and that is saying something), I could barely listen to more than half of this album at first without juddering and switching it off at some overwhelming accidental crescendo. Yet, even at that stage, entry level tracks like 'My Head' and 'Drop out' had me snared. Those songs are just too classically catchy to dismiss as unfocused noise. They are gleaming, gleeful, if slightly imperfect, nuggets in the rough, the taxonomical brethren of songs by The Clean, The Strokes, Guided by Voices, or, indeed, by any great guitar band manufacturing short, sharp tunes regardless of their 'fidelity'. These are the sort of songs that can beat me (a tone-deaf guitar retard) into a fetal state of blissful admiration.

Competing with these big melodies, of course, is the production. The other major layer of 'Rip it off' is what one of my friends calls a "deliberate coat of affected shit", a layer which probably proves a harsh mistress for anyone approaching the album for the first time. He's right about one thing, the 'coat' is a deliberate type of racket, albeit one that sounds miraculously unplanned during some of the album's most sublime moments. However, after my relatively quick submission in the face of the production's harsh heft, I figured that none of the trio's musical tricks betray affectation or deliberately cynical perversion. On 'Rip it Off' Times New Viking are not trying to spoof the listener by howling into busted microphones for a wheeze or playing on gnarly equipment for some sort of arty hoot. No - they are trying to create a work of raw (and noisy) merit, and more or less succeeding. They are experimenting with their music in such a way that the fucked-up fuzz, the obliterated guitar and the overdriven voices become an added layer of instrumentation, a truly fascinating thickening of a soup that was rich enough to begin with.

In fact, in spite the album's bumper crop of huge hooks, I doubt that 'Rip it off' could have been recorded any other way without sounding like a neutered pup in comparison to the artifact Matador released. As it stands, it's an uncompromising beast of an album, a seething, textured, Mr Sheen-resistant lump of dirty, uncompromising pop.

MP3: Times New Viking-The Early '80s

1/16/10

My favourite albums of the decade #15

#15 Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump (2000)

This choice is a bit Proustian. I first heard 'The Sophtware Slump' when I was 19 and living in Canada. Nowadays, its bashed up, pretty (and sometimes ridiculous) songs are so tangled up with personal memories of wheatfields, nodding donkeys, mega-gulp slurpies, bongs and mosquitos that when I listen to the album I find it impossible to separate achy memories of that specific time and place from my emotional response to the record - an emulsified state of affairs if ever there was one.

I got very involved with the sentiment of 'The Sophtware Slump' at a time in my life when I was waaay more into the melodic structure of songs than their lyrical content (I'm only fully appreciating or recoiling from lyrics in the music I've always identified with now, at the tender age of 29 - I know, I'm a slow learner). In retrospect, this loose concept album probably appealed to my teen tastes because alcohol-dependent songwriter Jason Lytle's concepts are sorta teenagerish, overwrought, maudlin, sulky and dispirited. That's not to say he doesn't have a good way with words when the fog lifts. For every junior-cert style outpouring of guff such as "I want to sleep underneath the weeping willow", there is a profound haiku-like image like "tire scraps on a federal road/ look like crash landed crows/ from the dial-a-view" (a nightmarish observation made by a love-sick astronaut who has been in space for fifteen unexplained years while being cursed with the ability to see his loved ones grow strange and unrecognisable through some sort of money-operated viewing apparatus).

I think some of the songs on 'Sophtware Slump' are repetitive and I also think that the earlier 'Under the Western Freeway' is probably the pinnacle of Grandaddy's recording career, yet I am placing it at number 15 in a list of my favourite albums of the last ten years. Why? To paraphrase Rick James, memory is one helluva drug.

MP3: Grandaddy-Miner at the Dial-a-View

1/9/10

Gardenology

My father has gone a bit mad on the garden birds this winter. Bird crazy. He's spoiling them with all sorts of specialised shit. There's a twenty perch goldfinch feeder, mealworms, fat-balls (insert joke here) and high nutrient seeds. In other words, our garden is a sort of neverland ranch for birds, a place where their wildest little birdie dreams come true on a daily basis; it's a magical calorie packed wonderland in the middle of Ireland's coldest winter for decades. Unfortunately, It's also neverland for cats. We don't endorse cats in any shape of form, but because of the bird quotient, our garden has become the number one place for them to hang out around town.

It's a barrel of easy meat for the cats too, our garden. You see, I think some of the birds are a bit bloated and fucked because of the abundance of goodies on offer; they're like plump retirees in a Vegas slot machine palace, stumbling around the garden from one unseasonal nutrient-packed treat to the next, stuffed and mindless, temporarily unaware of the fact they are wild animals. The cats, though, are still lean and sly. The mental school-teacher over the road who accommodates them all (up to 18 I reckon) obviously isn't doling out the whiskas in spite of the cold snap, so they are reverting to the hunter-gatherer part of their natures. So far, one mangy little moggy has bagged itself two redwing thrushes who seem to have gotten so engorged on 'fat-balls' that they forgot how to use their wings.


There's one bird that the cats won't have a chance with though. This particular bird is a very paranoid and aggressive member of the thrush family called the fieldfare - thrush on gak/steroids/pcp. The picture above is one I took of the very bird himself in one of his more relaxed moments. In the wild he (I'm not arbitrarily ascribing a gender ladies, with fancy birds it's always a male) is distinguishable from the common song thrush or mistle thrush because of his size, his grey helmet of feathers, and his tendency to erect his tail to roughouse AND terrify birds from the garden who can't cope with said plumed tail (like a non-fancy, no-messing peacock. He's also very handsome. Well, we all thought this when he landed in the garden three days ago).

Now, we don't like him so much cos of his lordly manners and tendency to chase smaller birds from the garden, birds who've been around for ages (I wouldn't lay money on seeing a return of our song thrush this year). Indeed, until yesterday, I've never heard my father call a member of the animal kingdom his favourite swearword, "bastard". The fieldfare is now his personal enemy. It's a "bastard". Dad aside, my gentle sister (a psychologist) also took a ferocious dislike to the fieldfare. Leaning over the kitchen counter and viewing the garden this morning she said,"what's that bird's problem? that bird has psychiatric problems. Look at it." The fieldfare was busy terrorizing a gang of blackbirds even though he had squirrled a pile of olives well out of their reach.

Yup, the fieldfare is a terribly territorial creature. It quickly established its 'ownership' of our garden using dive-bombing, charging, and tail-erect bully rampages to hammer home its dominance every few minutes. We thought the blackbird was hardcore until this hungry be-helmeted oik appeared. Funnily enough, while it was the only bird in the garden eating bits of fruit, it still behaved like all the other birds (eating nuts) were territorial enemies.

Then the Daily Mail (don't ask - I don't read it) landed in the house earlier. The front page had this stuff about the cold snap and climate and blah de blah, but a few pages in, there was something else....a little wildlife report. My dad came up to me and showed it to me. It read that because of the vicious cold-snap a lot of british hedgerow birds have migrated to Ireland this winter........including redwings and fieldfares. I said "yeah, isn't it cool, there's more migratory birds in Ireland." He just looked me straight in the eye and said, "I fuckin knew that bird was English"

1/8/10

My favourite albums of the decade #16

#16 Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (2008)

I am always fascinated by the way in which music is disseminated by critics and by how powerful an influence their words can have over a certain type of music consumer. Lately, in turn, I've wondered just what intelligent bands like Vampire Weekend make of the eddying eruptions of pseudo-profound critical shitspeak that cling to their reputations like trails of sour gas? I mean it must be tough to record an outright brilliant, whip-smart, and exuberant debut album which sets your band apart from indie-landfills the size of small countries - only to have some worthy gobshite (who secretly doesn't even know what he's talking about not to mention the fact that he probably never danced) criticize you for being arch or 'appropriating' African music.

If I was a member of Vampire Weekend, I would drop my pants, swivel my hole, and launch a projectile shit at the next open-mouthed gobdaw who wheeled out that insidious stinker of a criticism about musical influences. "Eat it, with a big fuzzy helping of your own logic, you right-on twerp!" I would say, if I was in Vampire Weekend. And then I might reflect about critics and backlashes and shit, and possibly think that if my band were guilty of anything, it would seem that we were guilty of being smart and having a few bob. 'Cos if you boil it right down, that's the problem a lot of people have with Vampire Weekend. They are smart and seem to have a few bob. A bad thing for some.

Of course, the above was never really a problem for The Strokes (who released a similarly fine debut album which tops many of these decade lists). Being haemophiliac love-children of Swiss bankers and supermodels, they weren't short of a few bob obviously, but they never acted too smart. Monosyllabic to a tee and steeped in rock'n'roll cliché, they never faced the same level of agonised critical snobbery that Vampire Weekend did. 

To return to the critical dissemination thing, it must be acknowledged that Vampire Weekend were a band whose success was borne of internet hype, and consequentially some might assert that the above blathering is beside the point considering the level of success they subsequently experienced. To this, I would tentatively say 'eh, no'. I think their debut album is so robustly and obviously brilliant that some backlash-addicted people have groped around for a catch or caveat in order to kneecap it. And of course there was a catch, the whole Africa music malarky; first thrown to the doubters by spiteful critics, then snapped up by the starling-flock brain of a million blogs all having the same 'original' thought. 

Some people just won't allow themselves to like this album. Which is a shame, because, in my relatively jaded mind at least, it is the debut indie-guitar album of the late decade. Every single song on this debut drips pure nuclear essence of indie-disco anthem. In fact, there is not one iota of filler; and that, I think, is the main point of Vampire Weekend. They are about fun-times, parties and pop thrills and even their playfully evocative collegiate lyrics feed into this heady blend.

So then. More fool the pen-wielding goon who tries to make out that any of that is more than just, well, that. 

MP3: Vampire Weekend-Mansard Roof

1/7/10

breather for a few plugs...

Am I mad to think I'll get my albums of the decade done before January? Probably. But I really want to get my blog tootling along at its normal pace, and the list, well, the list is starting to make me feel like Coleridge's ancient mariner after he harpooned that albatross. Rough, but to paraphrase some other demented bloke out of literature I'm in it so deep now that returning would be as pointless as going forward. In the meantime here are a few plugs for things to look out for in January.


First, the Yours Truly guys I mentioned before are returning to Crawdaddy on Friday 8th with music from New Amusement (up and coming Irish crowd with a lovely line in understated indie), Killer Chloe and Kid Karate. Doors are 8pm and there's a club night until 3am afterwards so ye can shake the ice particles out of your trendy cardigans; I also heard Jack Daniels and coke makes for good antifreeze. It's a tenner, and well worth checking out.

Ceol Ar An Imeall
There's a new music TV programme starting on TG4 from Thursday January 14th. It will be presented by Una Mullally of the Tribune and formally the Unarocks blog. I don't know if she will be talking fluent Irish, but I have an idea of the sort of music that will be played and it looks good. From the press release: "The show features exclusive interviews with some of the biggest names in indie music (Julian Casablancas, The xx, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear and more), live sessions from awesome Irish bands (Channel One, Delorentos, Heathers, Adebisi Shank and more), and music videos." It's good to see these new openings for Irish bands to get straight exposure on TV (i.e. without having to take part in a nobby mobile phone sponsored competition or some such shite).

Right-o, see ye later with some more albums of the decade.

my favourite albums of the decade #17

#17 Deepchord presents Echospace - The Coldest Season (2007)

Oh fucking hell baby it's cold outside, and my albums of the decade list doesn't seem to want to get warm anytime soon either, just check out number 17. Deepchord Presents Echospace's 'The Coldest Season' is a monolithic, hissing, dub-techno concept album about winter that sometimes sounds like gas cooling on a distant planet. Indeed it is so alien and frigid that SunnO)))'s 'cursed realm (of the winterdemons)' from #18 might seem like a pleasant holiday destination after a few listens to this beast.

The album, recorded by the veteran American producers Stephen Hitchell (Soultek/ Echospace) and Rob Modell (Deepchord), is a genuine high-watermark within a corner of techno music that outsiders sometimes criticise for bobbing along in a sort of self-absorbed stasis since Basic Channel sketched its weird cartography in the nineties. On 'The Coldest Season', the core stylistic elements of the genre (poop-rattling bass, murky reverb-laden chords made on insanely specialised analog synths, damaged hi-hats and oceans of tape hiss) are all present and correct, yet the piece - and that's how it plays, as an 80 minute piece - moves well beyond the standard dub-techno template and should rightfully be appreciated as one of the great ambient albums.

MP3: Deepchord Presents Echospace-Empyrean

The track above (Empyrean) is the album-closer, its 'warmest', and the closest in form to classic dub-techno. Elsewhere, on the likes of 'Ocean of Emptiness', the sequenced beats melt away almost entirely, leaving only the barest clicks bobbing on billowing masses of sub-zero hiss. There are moments in the midst of this when the music, poised somewhere between pure ambience and structured dub, leaves the listener (ideally ensconced under a duvet and wearing fuck-off headphones) feeling lost in something as sculptural as it is musical. I know, I know, it's a cliché when writers resort to clunky visual metaphors when describing this sort of thing, so I'll zip it right here.

1/2/10

My favourite albums of the decade #18

Well the weather outside is frightful but the music inside is....oh shit, it's frightful. So much for that. In a weird conspiracy between my blog and the unusually frigid winter, it would seem that albums 19, 18, and 17 on my list form a sort of accidental trilogy of coldness. I'd be tempted to cast this off as a fortunate thematic coincidence if it weren't for the presence of Sunn O))) on the list. Satan, you're fiddling with my blog right?

#18 Sunn O))) - Black One (2005)

Black One might be seen as the 'token metal album' on my list, because Sunn O))), like Mastodon and others, are bands that snorting metallers deride as 'hipster metal', stuff that has been picked up by taste-making critics in the alternative press and therefore is about as popular among the dark brethern as prostate cancer (or the lead singer of Gorgoroth since he outed himself - I (half) jest, I (half) jest). Regardless, 'token metal album' is actually a silly tag for a Sunn O))) album, because unlike the majority of the artists who operate within 'metal', this music isn't bound by ferociously rigid and/or arcane notions of tradition and genre. That isn't to say that such notions cannot lead to great artistry - after all the entire history of music (popular and otherwise) has turned on its entire axis around intimate little scenes. No, it is rather just to say that it is easier to frame this particular album as something outside of genre; in other words, it ain't really metal. Black One is avant garde music; avant garde music which draws heavily from metal.

Now that all that hair-splitting (greasy, long, long, long, black hair with dried sperm and crumbs of tayto in it, oh fuck I can't help myself) is out of the way, what of the album itself? It's dark, it's gloomy, it's oppressive, horrifying, chilling, bleak, ravaged, damaged, and here's the thing, it's also knowing. You see, Sunn O))) know that they are working in a genre of music that takes itself very seriously, and they challenge the listener to deal with that. They are aware that you might be a hip fucker coming to them through some trendy website. But be warned, these lads probably get you (listener) a lot more than you think you get them.

To blog real time across one track: 'Báthory Erzsébet' begins with a muffled bell chiming. This repeats for a while. It's like the Angelus gone satanically slow. Muffled. Dead. Cold. A crackle and a hiss announce the presence of something else at play, musicians tuning up? The bell changes tone, the hiss persists (at this stage you could be listening to late period Aphex Twin, a thought backed up by an aborted electronic chopper sound). This ominous tableau continues for over seven minutes, its intention clearly to lull the listener into an existential and prone state of listening, softened up like a piece of dough. Then, the onslaught - Sunn O)))'s trademark, deep, rotted drones of ultra delayed and detuned guitar and Xasthur's claustrophobic rasping (they nailed him shut in a coffin to record the vocals due to his phobia of enclosed spaces...as you do, like). It's magnificent stuff, that demands to be turned up very, very loud. It also needs to be listened to with an open mind -this is music that deals with mood and texture rather than melody; I got absolutely fucking eaten alive and nearly punched in the face by a more melodically inclined mate who I brought to see the band play the Primavera festival.

LOUD! ON DA BUS! That's how I listened to Black One possibly 20 times over, on the 109 bus from Kells to Dublin and back. Not very dark - I'll grant you that - but boy was it fucking cathartic to be listening to this stuff while peering out at a liquid black rinse of Cabra going either forwards or backwards past the wet window. Y'see, this kind of music can be for all sorts.

P.S. The youtube version below starts after the chiming - yup, it may be nine minutes long but it's already seven minutes in, 'cos that's how Sunn O))) roll muthafuckas!!!



So what's #17 then? It's cold. It's very, very cold.