Tag Archives: Rock N Roll

A Swanky 2012: Part Two

29 Dec

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[For an Introduction to A Swanky 2012, go here.]

Part Two

 

The Bowl:  Outback Bowl – South Carolina v. Michigan 

The Pick:  South Carolina (-5.5)

The Album:  Confess by Twin Shadow

Bringing a full-fledged commitment and earnestness to the pop/rock musical styles of the 1980s, Twin Shadow delivered one of the more passionate and assured albums of the year.  Confess sounds as if the brooding, bookish introvert from down the hall has been spending all of his time listening to Top 100 rock radio mixes from 1979 – ’89, and now wants to impress that Hot Girl In The Denim Whitesnake Jacket.  That is a very good thing.

The basic, familiar elements are all there on Confess – the shiny and clear guitar chords, the chiming synthesizers that drench everything in a fluorescent haze, the yearning, balls-out, Auto-Tuned yawp of unrequited love.  This is much more than just a tired retread of an old Journey album, though.  There’s a vitality and urgency to every song, as though front man George Lewis Jr. absolutely needed to get these things down on vinyl.

There’s a lot going on here, musically, underneath the flashy veneer that screams “Retro.”  There are different sonic touches and melodies swirling and enmeshing everywhere, marking this as the work of a true music aficionado who knows his way around the creation of big, bold, and flashy hooks.

Those hooks, and the overall adeptness with creating pop songs, make Confess compulsively listenable, particularly if you’ve got the top down on a sunny day, or you’re dreaming of such a scene as the rain trickles down outside.  The songs sound tight and sleek like any well-oiled pop machine should, and various lyrical and melodic hooks will get stuck in your head long after your first hear them.  The true strength of Confess is that Lewis delivers these pop goods without losing any of his vibrant, bleeding, music-loving heart.

 

The Bowl:  Capital One Bowl – Nebraska v. Georgia

The Pick:  Georgia (-9)

The Album:  Lonerism by Tame Impala

It had been two years since Tame Impala’s last album, Innerspeaker, and for fans of that record, the wait for Lonerism was a long one.  Innerspeaker was a constant treat for the ears, with warm guitar feedback loops and vintage electronic touches flying under and around the melodic, Lennon-esque vocals of front man Kevin Parker.  The group set the bar high for themselves, and in their follow-up, they generally managed to hit the same top marks while pushing their sound into new territories as well.  While Lonerism may not have been able to best Innerspeaker, it’s worthy of standing on its own as one of the most unique and high-quality rock albums of the year.

Lonerism features the same melodic characteristics that are now familiar to listeners of Tame Impala – the fuzzed-out halo around every sound effect, the echo-y and airy vocals, the propensity to leap off into a psychedelic groove tangent when the opportunity presents itself.  The album, and the band itself, sounds like a transmission beamed here from a recording studio in 1971.  As they’ve proved before, Tame Impala doesn’t rely on their vintage sound to become a gimmicky crutch – instead it is something that is wholly unique and wholly their own.  They know what they like and they make great music with it.

Lonerism marks some different approaches for the band, particularly in that it features some more open-ended songs and sonic arrangements.  Tame Impala have proved they know how to lock into tight grooves and rock out hard with the best of them, and while there are some excellent hard-driving moments on Lonerism such as “Elephant,” there are also a lot of songs that spread out all over the musical spectrum and take their time getting to wherever they happen to be going.  Vocal effects, spare synths, guitars, and various other chimes and squiggles caterwaul around tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” with a joyous abandon, and it can be overwhelming at times.

The strength of Lonerism, and of the maturing Tame Impala in general, is that they are in control of their free-wheeling grooves at all times, no matter how out-there and exploratory they may seem to be.  Just when you think things are going to spin off into the ether, a well-timed bass and drum combo locks into a deep groove and reminds you that these guys are first and foremost a great rock band.

 

The Bowl:  Fiesta Bowl – Kansas State v. Oregon

The Pick:  Kansas St. (+9)

The Album:  R.A.P. Music by Killer Mike

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other release this year, hip-hop or otherwise, that seethes with as much pent-up vitriol and passionate energy as Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music.  Producer El-P creates spare, pounding beats with menacing synth lines that perfectly match the tone of the lyrics and draw out the essential elements of Mike’s behind-the-beat flow.

For listeners only familiar with Killer Mike from his “All Day I Dream About Sex” days, it’s probably a surprise to hear the bombastic rapper getting serious throughout R.A.P. Music; there’s a refreshing sincerity to his lyrics and delivery as he tackles social and emotional issues through the record.  Mike and Co. aren’t holding anything back on this one.

Things aren’t all somber and preachy, however, as Mike finds plenty of time to toss in off-color jokes and vibrantly ridiculous imagery, much like his fellow Southern hip-hop counterparts, OutKast.  Even as the beats and spat-out lyrics are knocking you flat, R.A.P. never stop being entertaining as hell.

When R.A.P. Music hits its high points, it’s an exhilarating call-back to the days of early Public Enemy and Straight Outta Compton.  There’s an incendiary, almost subversive feeling to the record, and there wasn’t much else like it this year.

 

The Bowl:  Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M v. Oklahoma

The Pick:  Texas A&M (-3)

The Album:  Nocturne by Wild Nothing

Whether they set out to do it or not, Wild Nothing’s Nocturne sounds like a perfect distillation of every summer night you had from age 14 to 21.  Like many of those nights, it wheels between feeling wistful, blissed-out, and restless.  There’s a laid-back vibe over much of the album that evokes the haze of summer; that slow, dreamy feeling deceptively covers up the prolific and deft musicianship going on just under the surface.

Under that sleek surface, Nocturne is filled with layers of sound that are intricately pieced together, and as each track progresses, the layers often build upon each other, building momentum before cresting in powerful and well-earned climaxes.  These are expansive soundscapes largely dominated by delicate yet striking guitar chords that loop around each other and create an immersive atmosphere around bits of drums, synths, and airy vocals.

The album’s tracks flow into each other and create a hazy, seductive mood that borders on the dreamlike – it can make you feel nostalgic for a period of time or singular moment that you can’t quite place, and maybe never even experienced.  It’s a striking and poignant listening experience.  This is sunny music flecked with melancholy, both in the lyrics and in the chiming, mournful chords that fall like rain out of the speakers.

 

The Bowl:  National Championship – Alabama v. Notre Dame

The Pick:  Alabama (-9.5)

The Album:  Port of Morrow by The Shins

The Shins’ last album, Wincing The Night Away, was a strange yet fascinating record, marked by feelings of mystery and a slight menace, that saw James Mercer choosing electronic territory more so than the strummed-guitar chords of Chutes Too Narrow.  In the five years since the release of Wincing, Mercer had reshuffled the band around him, and it wasn’t clear which version of the Shins would be appearing in 2012.  Or if they would be able to sustain the quality of albums’ past.  Port of Morrow answered those questions, and showed that the Shins’ future is bright.

One of the great things about Port is that it takes all of the sonic elements from the group’s earlier records and puts them together into a confident and propulsive new sound.  There are electronic flourishes, there are quiet moments of acoustic beauty, there are eloquent, strange and esoteric little catches of lyrics and phrases, and there are surges of momentum that unmasks Mercer’s rock and roll heart.  It’s an album in which you can see how the band has grown, and it feels both refreshingly new and professionally mature.

The ultimate triumph of Port may be that it shows of Mercer’s ability to remain immediate and impactful with his musical themes.  He may not be an angst-y young songwriter anymore, but he can still combine melodies and lyrics to create moments that connect on deep emotional levels.  Port hits upon some universal, hard-to-eludicate themes of life in a way that few other artists could duplicate this year – without sacrificing any musical enjoyment in the process.

 

TwinShadow

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Question the Bear

12 Sep

Minus the Bear released  their newest album Infinity Overhead on August 28.  In case that sentence doesn’t make much sense to you, Minus the Bear is a Seattle-based band that has been around for 11 years, turning out 5 proper albums and a handful of smaller EPs releases over that time period.  The band was an early favorite in my life as a music fan, and as a result, I approached Infinity Overhead in a different way than I did other recent releases.  As my approach to the album was different, so too was my reaction upon first listen.

My reaction to this album was unique, and it was unique in a way that led me to question how I think about the music I enjoy, and about the artists I cite as long-held favorites.  It was a thought-provoking album, in a way that didn’t really have much to do with the substance of the songs themselves.

MtB’s music could be described in a very simplified way as electronic-tinged indie rock.  Their sound is predominantly based around a dynamic lead guitar line, which is usually leading the way as the songs shift between multiple time signatures.  Guitarist Dave Knudson loves his effects pedals, and his propensity for building melodic and haunting hooks out of guitar loops is one of the defining aspects of the group’s musical identity.  Another defining component would be frontman Jake Snider’s vocals, which are marked by his airy voice and lyrics that are both conversational and visually evocative.  Add in a synthesizer section of the band that will occasionally take front and center, and you start to get a feel for the unique sound that MtB has been creating for over a decade.

My introduction to MtB came about at some point in high school – the exact point in time has dissolved into the haze of the ambiguous teenage timeline.  I came across MtB mainly due to the fact that we both came from Seattle.  The band had built up a strong following among the local music scene at that point, and I had picked up on the buzz from friends who were more scene than I was.  As I started to explore the band’s music, my connection to their work developed to a level beyond just that of a shared hometown.  I was floored by the spiky melodies and propulsive emotions of the songs, and hook after hook got buried into my head.  Each MtB release that I came across seemed to offer something new to enjoy, and when I was finally able to get to a live show, the band met the raucous energy of the sweaty, sold-out club crowd head-on and exceeded expectations with a great set.

When MtB released their album Planet of Ice in 2007, I had already carried their music with me to college like a particularly meaningful piece of home, and the new songs only added to that piece.  Ice was an intriguing mix of songs that were particularly moody and seductive, and it seemed as if the band had found a way to expand their earlier sound without losing many of the core elements that had made them so compelling in the first place.  At this point, I would have confidently put MtB in a discussion of my favorite bands.  This was a sentimental inclusion into a large group, but still – they commanded my respect and appreciation as a fan.

After Planet of Ice was released in 2007, the next proper albums to come from MtB were OMNI in 2010, and then the record I mentioned earlier, Infinity Overhead.  Beginning with OMNI, my reception to the new MtB albums began to change a bit.  Rather than getting instantly hooked into each new batch of songs, I could feel myself having a much more subdued reaction.  With OMNI, the basic MtB sound was still intact – electronic flourishes, live-wire guitar lines, lyrical accounts of beautiful women encountered on rain-slicked city streets.  Largely missing, however, was a sense of immediacy and an edge to the music that I had found so alluring in the group’s previous releases.  It wasn’t that OMNI was a bad album.  It was a very solid album, and occasionally had moments or songs that hit the same emotional and musical themes that I had always loved about MtB.  There was just something mildly disappointing about the record, so that I found myself straining to really like it at times.  The spark just wasn’t there, as it had been before.

As OMNI faded away and Infinity Overhead approached, I didn’t know what to expect.  Well, I kind of knew, in the back of my head, but didn’t want to admit it.  I wanted MtB to do well – I felt as if I had an investment in their success, and as a music fan, I wanted to hear the band reach the same heights as they had on their earlier records.  After listening to Infinity a couple of times, I was discouraged to find that my initial wariness from OMNI had been justified.  Infinity sounds as if the group is definitely trying to grow their sound – expanding the scope with chiming guitar chords and broadening the subject matter of the lyrics so that there are less sections about a small moment at the back of a bar and more about the feelings behind universal topics like heaven and adulthood.  For me, at least, these efforts fall flat and a lot of Infinity sounds as if the group is trying too hard, or at least forcing an energy through that didn’t need to be forced before.  Again, like OMNI, this is not a bad record.  There is still a lot of enjoyment to be found from these songs.  But when I compare Infinity to the majority of MtB’s discography, I can’t help but be disappointed.

That disappointment bothers me, and leads to some questions.  Why, exactly, do I feel let down by MtB’s new songs?  Is it because of the musical quality, or is it because I can’t put my romanticized notions of the group to the side and just approach the album as its own separate piece of work?  Or am I not responding as fervently to Infinity just because I’m now at a different point in my life – namely, I’m growing up and firmly a member of the (young) adult world.  If my age and situation in life does have an effect on these new MtB records, does that mean that my admiration and attachment to the group’s earlier records had more to do with me than it did with the music itself?  And along these lines, were those early, beloved MtB tracks really all that good, or did they just come along at the right place and the right time, striking chords in me that could have been struck by any number of bands?  

Most of these questions call up the issue of my musical tastes, and the arbitrary nature of the whole music fan experience.  When it comes to the questions about my earlier affinity for MtB being defined more by my teenage self than by their actual music, it makes me wonder if someone could just decide to find a favorite band, and then manipulate their listening experiences so that eventually, whatever band they choose will, in fact, be the group that inspires the heady emotions and attachments that can be a part of music fandom.  I can see some ways that this arbitrary ‘favorite band’ decision could be possible.  If someone were to consistently and consciously play a band’s songs during moments of their life that they know will be memorable (teenage years, college, when you’re falling in love with someone) than those songs and that band will begin to take on a lot of emotional significance. There could be the same attachment that I have felt at times for MtB.  The fact that I love many MtB songs that I first listened to all through high school, and that I now have a tepid reaction to MtB songs that I’m listening to during adulthood could be construed as an extension of this arbitrary argument.

This, to me, is troublesome.  The idea that someone could consciously choose the music they will have a lifelong connection to, the music that they can always turn to at rough times for solace and inspiration, bothers me because it goes against what I believe about music in general.  I may be idealistic, but I believe that you can’t choose what songs will catch your ear and burrow into your emotions at any given time.  One of things I love about music is the way in which you can stumble across a song or artist purely by chance, and when you instantly feel a connection to their work, that ‘chance’ can seem like fate.  It brings some sense of magic and fate into a world that can at times seem to be lacking in these things.  You can allow yourself to think, if just for a second, that you were ‘meant’ to hear a certain song or artist because they could tell you something about life that you were missing.  The intangible, artistic strength and meaning behind great music (which early MtB was to me) is not something that can be manipulated or faked.  At least that’s what I believe.

To help momentarily settle my bit of music fan disquiet, I put the album that started all these questions –  Infinity Overhead – on pause, and went back to the older MtB releases that had initially drawn me in to the band.  I wanted to see if these older tracks would sound any differently now that I had heard the new releases and now that I had questioned the reasons I liked the band in the first place.

With MtB songs like “Fine + 2 PTS,” “I Lost All My Money At The Cock Fights,” and “Monkey!!!Knife!!!Fight!!!” it’s easy to see how my teenage self would have been drawn in right away.  A lot of these songs have a sexy, swaggering, and brooding edge to them, with a recurring theme of ‘fuck it, I’ll do whatever I want’ running throughout.  In that area, at least, the age at which I discovered MtB had an influence on how much I was attracted to the group’s music.  But you know what?  Even today, no longer a teenager, I can still feel those emotional themes surging through those old songs, and I can still get moved by them.  Both the lyrics and the compelling sounds behind the tracks are tapped into something that reaches the teenage self in all of us – the young self that never really goes away.  We all still have some of those raw, turbulent emotions inside of us, and MtB were great in the way they were able to put a voice to all of that.

Perhaps MtB’s new music isn’t firing the same spark inside of me because the band themselves grew up and grew away from those vibrant emotions they depicted so well.  A lot of artists have gone through the same process, trying to keep the emotional edge to their music as they concurrently try to mature it and use it to portray the new themes of their no-longer angst-driven young lives.  It’s a hard thing to do, and just because it may not be totally successful, that doesn’t mean it discounts the great earlier music that drew fans to that band in the first place.  When a body of work strikes you in the same way that MtB’s earlier work did to me, there is a much deeper reason behind that connection besides just being a teenager looking for music to rock out and emote to.  There’s a strong and talented artistic voice behind that kind of connection.  And that’s what Minus the Bear have.  No matter what they put out in the future, I’ll always be a fan of that unique voice.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town

6 Mar

The rock stars of yesterday are too often the uninspired institutions of today, which was I how used to view Bruce Springsteen.  Up until a few months ago, Springsteen existed in my mind solely to soundtrack 4th of July parties and Boomer retirement gigs in Jersey.  I didn’t have a negative opinion of him or his music, but could have cared less about it.  ‘Born in the USA’ was mainly a trigger to fond memories of sun-drenched BBQs and fireworks; the rest of his music faded into a haze of saxophones and gravelly-voiced innuendos.  That all changed when I came across an LP of his record “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” represents one of the qualities of great music that is easy to forget.  If an artist can capture the essential nature of a basic truth – be it something like love, death, war, etc. – then that music will have an immediacy and import to it that can last long after its creation.  Sometimes the meaning of that music will be pretty universal, in that everyone who hears it can feel the same emotional connection to the songs as everyone else.  But more often, the true feeling behind the music can evade a listener until they’re at a specific age in life, or they’re going through a defining experience – like finding true love, losing that love, or growing up.

So it was that I came to “Darkness,” standing squarely in the middle of my twenties and wondering what the hell this adult life is going to be all about.  And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a pissed-off, restless, and ravaged voice comes pealing out from the 70’s and puts a sound to some of the thoughts and emotions pinging around my head.

The raw emotion in “Darkness” comes in large part from Springsteen’s voice.  The vocals assume different tones throughout the album, but never lose a sense of urgency and yearning.  It’s never in doubt that Bruce urgently cares for everything he’s signing about.  At times, it seems that getting certain lyrics out was deadly important to him.  His narrative perspective straddles the line between a young, earnest idealism, and a scarred, hard-earned wisdom; this speaks directly to the twenties’ conflict between the blunt truths of the adult world and the idealistic sensitivity you still carry from youth.

The life of a young adult in today’s world is marked by excitement and confusion, with starts and stops of momentum.  It is strange and frustrating to feel stuck in place yet always on the verge of being overwhelmed by everything going on.  There are some recurring emotions and ideas that mark this life experience, and “Darkness” is bursting at the seams with them.  Over the course of ten tracks, Springsteen sings of long hot nights, the crushing nature of working life, the fear of never achieving your dreams, and the struggle with just settling or fighting to get above it all.

I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these / Badlands

It’s appropriate that “Darkness” begins with a song called “Badlands,” as the album is marked by constant descriptions of the narrator’s badlands – not necessarily a specific place, but more like a state of mind.  These badlands are a desolate place in one’s young life where the oppressive forces of the adult world are met by a desperate hope to rise above it all.  And Springsteen as the narrator is desperate to do just that.

One thing immediately noticeable in “Badlands” is the fervent energy coiled behind Springsteen’s voice – a vibration that grabs you and goes for the heart of what young adulthood is all about.  That energy carries throughout the album and seethes just below the surface for the most part.  When it comes out, it does so in unchecked bursts of yearning guitar, sax, and harmonica solos often sounding out back-to-back-to-back.  These solos appear throughout “Darkness,” representing the urgent, forceful spikes of emotion that can’t be fully conveyed through simple lyrics.  They are a sonic reflection of the frustrated energy that can shoot through you during another long day at a passionless job, or when the trust-fund kid peels out next to you in a brand new and unearned sports car.  They’re  vibrant bursts of anger, longing, and frustration that are unnervingly familiar.

Just kids wasted on / Something in the night

One core theme that appears throughout the tracks on “Darkness” is that of The Night.  Most of the action in the songs find the narrator at night, either with friends, lovers, or alone.  The constant use of the nighttime setting provides another strong connection to life in your twenties.  At times, it can seem as though most of your life experience at this age occurs in the dark – the time at work during the day just becomes a vague blur, a precursor to when you can finally escape the grind and go out at night with your friends.  Or pursue romances that constantly toe the line between love and lust.  Springsteen seems to know that real living often comes after sundown, and he provides some lasting and immediately relatable images in this vein.

One such image comes from “Something In The Night.”  The track begins with a slow and almost-primal moan from Springsteen that echoes with the yearning of something you’re not even sure exists.  “Something” continues as Bruce describes driving alone in a car at night, always looking for something that escapes definition.  As you enter adulthood, your lack of clear ties – no family, no established career, always renting – can feel very much like driving aimlessly through the night, alone with your thoughts and a particularly resonant song on the radio.  Bruce captures this perfectly with “Darkness.”

The dogs on Main Street howl ‘cause they understand / If I could take one moment into my hands

One of the most important and meaningful aspect of “Darkness”  is its central theme of striving to rise up above the oppressive and depressing realities around you.  Springsteen uses images of desert badlands and grim working-class factory towns to represent the cold realities of adult life.  In his songs, these realities come into sharp conflict with the passionate idealism of a young adult, who constantly has “hot blood” burning in their veins.

This “hot blood” is one of the many sharply evocative images in Springsteen’s lyrics, and when he uses it to describe one’s angered frustration at the environment they’re in, it’s hard to think of a better term for the young adult’s experience.  The sacrifice of your time and energy to the constant grind of faceless adult working life is a quietly disturbing concept to an idealistic and hopeful younger self; your blood can boil with anger at your own acquiescence to this reality of growing up.  It’s often a necessary fact of life, however.  Dealing with this fact while also yearning to rise above it and find another way to succeed is a central conflict as you continue to grow up.

Listening to Bruce grapple with these concepts in “Darkness” is a moving experience, and provides a welcome nod to the fact that these internal conflicts have been shared by many.  The deep feelings of anger, melancholy, and defiance come through clearly in Springsteen’s lyrics, voice, and instruments.  Hearing the full album in one sitting can be a cathartic experience.

I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town

When a piece of music connects with you as strongly as “Darkness” does, it becomes more than just a simple piece of entertainment.  The songs can actually influence how you feel –  they can change the way you approach the rest of your day, your week, your year, maybe your life.

“Darkness” is initially affecting in that it offers an emotional release; hearing Springsteen channel these forceful and immediate feelings into music allows you to feel as if you yourself are the one yelling your heart out over booming drum rolls.  By the time the title track comes around to end the album, Springsteen has moved from providing a release to delivering a sense of hope and inspiration for the future.  He sings of wanting what’s in the darkness at the edge of town, and for me, that darkness represents future possibilities outside of the structured, mind-numbing sameness of the safe status quo.  Yes, it’s a risk to leave the safety of town and head into the dark unknown.  But the restless frustration that comes from resigning your spirit is a heavy price to pay for security.

“Darkness” is ten tracks from an angry, passionate man who understands how high the stakes can seem at a pivotal era in your young life.  While he’s evoking the desolate emotional badlands where many have found themselves as they transition into the adult world, he’s also pointing to the dangerously uncertain darkness as a remaining source of hope and unbroken dreams.  The album is a thrilling, mournful, and essential contribution to the world of music that is just as important today as it was thirty-four years ago.