October 27, 2009
2009 | Unsigned
Is Small Black the best release by a Brooklyn artist this year? Maybe, but a more apt question is: does anyone even care anymore, even if it is? As our once-little scene explodes more and more each month, any band able to book the Market Hotel is going to end up as part of Pitchfork’s “Rising” list; every blog is going to post their “single premier”/their exclusive video performance in an obscure household area (perhaps washtub?)/four or five Memory Tapes remixes/pictures of them in Halloween costumes/attempt analyses of their bar fights/take stabs at them for developing the hype that they did/try to destroy them.
Even I, by beginning a review of a band criticizing the literal hype machine (not HypeMachine; I have no beef with streaming social media), am part of the problem. After all, I probably wouldn’t have heard about them unless Pitchfork posted opening track “Despicable Dogs” as one of their Best New Tracks. Small Black is only available as an independently issued 10-inch, not a CD, and maybe us here at JM.com will backlash at them when they reissue the EP next year on Matador or some shit, once it makes Pitchfork Best New Music.
All predictions aside, right now, Small Black’s five-song self-titled debut EP sounds pretty fucking good. It’s 25 minutes of unflinching bedroom pop. Other, more genre-happy blogs have dubbed this sound “glow-fi” or “chill-wave” – the band makes heavy use of electronics, fuzz, and pulsing high toned synths. The synths coming up out of the fuzz is apparently analogous to the way glitter shines on a black page – thus, “glow-fi” is born. But music doesn’t glow, and sound doesn’t actually shimmer, so let’s leave poor descriptors to the other guys.
What counts are the songs, and this collection, though short, is as close as it gets to perfect. When “Despicable Dogs” first made its way to the blogs, it was described as a languid, beach-combing summer jam. But now, deep into October, it sounds a lot more melancholy, impenetrable, alienated, stuck in itself, and if that doesn’t sound like the colorless end of autumn, what does? The chorus, “Do it without me/ Do it when I’m gone,” is stark and simple, as resigned as it immediately sounds. Does it sound optimistic? Sure. But unlike most similar projects, which are immediately depressing and hide small moments of joy (Again, Memory Tapes, we’re looking in your direction) Small Black sounds pleased and content, and their depth comes from that buried melancholia.
More on Small Black | Small Black
August 27, 2009
2009 | Self-Release
So it’s time for the context show.
There are two major elements that complicate my reviewing Sonya Cotton’s Red River. First, I know Sonya. She’s pretty cool, and she’s super nice to dogs. We are friends and we played music together for a long time. I also produced her first two albums. So, there’s that glaring “conflict of interest.” But I’ve no intention of writing a press release for Cotton, and I’d certainly, and without qualms, refuse to review her album if I wasn’t smitten by it. Second, I’m admittedly an overly liberal grader (much to the frustration of JM.com’s editors’ attempts to regulate the grading scale). The Low Anthem sounds really enthusiastic, shows a lot of promise, and has three incredible songs? Alright, “A.” J. Tillman’s new album is significantly better than his last? Aw, hell. Give the guy an “A.” He’s worked hard for it. Sometimes the editors suggest that I rethink and perhaps alter those generous grades, and I appreciate and actually thank them for that. It’s nice to have somebody to reel you in every once in a while. And it’s not unlikely that they will question the fact that I’m throwing Red River an “A.” This is all to say that the “A” above (and I’m even tempted to give an “A+”) is mine, it’s not the site’s. If you don’t agree with my mark, that’s totally okay. Not everybody can love every album. And I have a feeling that this album in particular a lot of people are going to be lukewarm about. If you don’t like Sonya’s voice, you’re not going to like this album; it’s a lot of Sonya. And if you don’t generally like female singer-songwriters, then you probably won’t like this album either – even though I think it establishes Sonya as one of the premier living female folk songwriters, right alongside Nina Nastasia. (I love Joanna Newsom, but Ys is not nearly as consistent as Red River.)
More on Sonya Cotton | Red River
Belle and Sebastian
If You’re Feeling Sinister
1996 | Matador
Can a record like If You’re Feeling Sinister, Scottish-college-project-turned-twee-wunderkinds Belle and Sebastian’s 1997 breakthrough album, ever exist again? Spring 1998, this album (reportedly made by a band that consisted of eight people but sounding like it was made by about three) fell into my lap at my college’s radio station. Interest peaked at first by the band’s name, sparking memories of the British cartoon series that was broadcast occasionally on Canadian television in my childhood home, I was immediately hooked on the band’s sound – and I was not alone.
If You’re Feeling Sinister was an enigma: bandleader Stuart Murdoch and the rest of his crew refused all interviews and rarely played concerts, sticking to their native Glasgow when they deigned to play live at all. Yet the band’s first fully-conceptualized album (their debut, 1995’s Tigermilk, is a rushed, occasionally brilliant mess that Murdoch has described as a “product of botched capitalism”) made its way onto the Matador label and, slowly but surely, into the hands of college radio jocks and other discerning audiophiles like me, based on word of mouth alone. Kind of nice, when you think about it, but also kind of depressing: less than fifteen years after Sinister’s release, the current promotional norm of internet blasts and the slow and steady decline of college radio suggest that, were Belle and Sebastian to pop onto the scene in 2009, they would quite possibly be swept under the rug before anyone got around to digging on the record.
More on Belle and Sebastian | If You’re Feeling Sinister
July 16, 2009
2009 | Dead Oceans
It seemed inconceivable that Bowerbirds could improve their debut, 2007’s Hymns For A Dark Horse. That album is one of the most assured and realized debuts in recent memory; more so, it’s one of the most cohesive and inspired albums I’ve ever heard. It’s an incredibly complex valentine to a diseased Earth and a call to arms against its assailants, and yet it asserts and maintains significant distance from any topical American music: it mourns and rages, but never proselytizes. It was powerful, but not forceful. And so I was fearful when Upper Air was announced; it seemed hubristic to attempt a follow-up so quickly after such a meticulously crafted piece of work. I didn’t want a sophomore album from Bowerbirds – I especially didn’t want a rushed one. I wanted another masterpiece.
Well, it’s been delivered. Upper Air is an incredible and profound accomplishment. Whereas Hymns was meticulous and measured, Upper Air is sprawling and breathless. It is to their credit that Bowerbirds Phil Moore and Beth Tacular recorded and released these songs as quickly as they did. In doing so, they circumvented any threat of a sophomore slump. Upper Air bears no real interconnected relation to Hymns. It feels isolated entity, alive, and couldn’t have been measured or delayed. It’s an album of love songs. As in, like, about a girl.
More on Bowerbirds | Upper Air
June 25, 2009
Sun City Girls
1998 | Abduction
Based out of Phoenix, AZ, and part of the same outré-rock crowd as The Meat Puppets, The Sun City Girls were an amalgamation of punk, surf, beat, free jazz, Middle Eastern, and African music. Mostly instrumental, and with no particular penchant for getting anywhere in a hurry, Sun City Girls often sounded like incidental music scoring a micro-budgeted independent film. Which is good, because no small percentage of their albums are titled as soundtracks to obscure independent films that may or may not have ever been made.
Such is the case with Dulce, a sprawling, arrythmic lesson in “out” music. Rarely does a melody get going for more than ten seconds, before being buried under a wash of random, crashing percussion or ambient noise. This is the kind of music that’s playing in Other Music while you’re going through stacks of used CDs, looking for cheap old emo records (if you’re anything like me, that is). It’s grinding (“The Victory Biological”), and numbingly ambient (“Unwind Your DNA”). While it never sets into a simple groove, tracks like “Bobbing the Bloody Vats” come off simultaneously repetitive and totally random. You wish the store had that copy of Orange Rhyming Dictionary you were eyeballing last week, and that the staff of Other Music would play some music that fit in with the American Pop idiom.
More on Sun City Girls | Dulce Soundtrack
June 18, 2009
André Herman Düne
Radbab Records | 2004
In my perfect world, André Herman Düne, former co-leader (with brother David) of the French Van Halen, Herman Düne, would be the better-known name on the cover of this record. As it stands, this seemingly bizarre pair of bedfellows (French bohemian vs. English AOR superstar) pays considerable lip service to the latter but sounds much more like the typical work of the former.
Dido, who was plucked from obscurity in 2001 when her first and biggest hit, “Thank You” was sampled by Eminem for “Stan,” his first (only?) bid for mass consideration as a “serious artiste,” makes syrupy love-rock when left to her own devices. Her brand of neutral, over-produced balladry probably plays best in a minivan’s tape deck, screaming kids in the back seat. This second homage to the gorgeous simplicity of her songwriting is a neat trick: Eminem put Dido in every household in America, but André Herman Düne puts her in the ears of bored hipsters, who should take to these simple recordings like Pavlov’s dog to the dinner bell. The songs, entirely solo-acoustic, could be leftovers from André Herman Düne Stands United, or, in fact, any of the prolific songster’s solo recordings (that’s how similar the two ultimately sound), when stripped down to the bare essentials.
Consisting of songs from Dido’s first two albums, No Angel and Life for Rent, and including renditions of both of the songwriter’s hits, “Thank You” and “White Flag,” Sings Dido, to the unaware, really could pass as another André Herman Düne solo joint. This is the neatest trick Herman Düne has played on us: in making these songs his own, and reading them so lovingly for his audience’s benefit, Herman Düne has revealed his pop-loving inner nerd, and fooled even the most thoroughly discerning into genuinely enjoying Top 40. I consider Sings Dido a great success, and recommend it as required listening for fans of either artist.
by Brook Pridemore
May 30, 2009
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
1993 | Island Records
I have long suspected that every one of U2’s moves has been calculated. Think about it: can you remember any point in your life where the band’s members were not either has-beens or at the top of their game? If you came of age in the 80s, like me, then no, you can’t. If you’re any younger than I am, you haven’t even been alive for long enough to have seen a time when U2 wasn’t in the public eye.
But here’s a weird time in the long, expansive career of U2: 1993. Still flying high off the success of 1987’s The Joshua Tree, but at risk of becoming old 80s rock news in a post-grunge market, Bono, The Edge and Co. had to come up with a new sound that embraced the current trend without sounding like copyists. In other words, U2 had to keep abreast of the competition. So the boys made an expensive gamble with possibly their most underrated album (and their only truly great one, in my opinion), 1993’s Zooropa.
More on U2 | “Numb”
May 17, 2009
1973 | Columbia Records
Many great players have successfully crossed genres, widening the appeal of jazz to a larger and less assuming audience. And funk and R&B were fused with bebop and hard bop long before many assume. This week, I want to pay homage to the album, and the artist, I believe to be the most influential in terms of the electro-funk-jazz movement – Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.
Head Hunters was released in 1973 on Columbia Records. Though this was not the first time Hancock experimented outside of the bop box, it was the first time the music world, and more specifically pop, recognized jazz in any major way. Hancock incorporated synthesizers neatly into jazz, never sacrificing melody or harmony.
More on The Masterful Mr. Hancock