Vitalic: OK Cowboy
|These days, the world of electronic music (as well as that of trendy "classical" music) has very few composers. Instead, those genres have what I consider "sculptors". While these artists can sometimes be minimalists and sometimes not, their method of creating a song does not have too many tools in the box, so to speak. It seems that artists of this style tend to work around a single loop, gradually refining and chipping away at it until it is considered complete. You add some extra beats here, throw in some sound effects, drop the drums out during this section, and your electronic masterpiece is complete. In contrast, "composition" is an approach that is more like painting or drawing: you approach the song from a top-down perspective, starting with a rough outline of the finished product and working down to the details. The two styles may seem very similar, but they can lead to drastically different outcomes. The benefit of composition, and why I prefer it, is that the final product is far less restrained. The "sculpting" style cannot be as flexible without sounding disjointed. The point, of course, is that Vitalic seems to be an artist who is a composer, not a sculptor. |
Of course, I don't actually know how Vitalic writes songs. But I do know that his tracks, while comprised of synth and electronic beats, sounds more like songs than your standard Pitchfork-suggested electronica. In fact, Vitalic straddles the line between techno and 80s New Wave synth pop in a way that I haven't heard before. This may be due to my limited electronica vocabulary, but the point is that Vitalic is a hell of a lot more interesting that any techno I've heard on these Top 50 lists.
The album starts with a simple two-part keyboard riff, speeds up, goes into a B section, and is repeated again but with a bass line. Then it ends. At just under two minutes. You don't see that kind of quick pacing very often in this genre, and it shows good promise that Vitalic knows when to quit. Most of the songs tend to follow the time-honored pop formula of verse-chorus-verse, and most of the songs show that the man understands how to best use this formula to maintain excitement and interest as the song progresses. The vocals on the CD are covered in layers of processing, and in some parts I swear to God he steals horn synth patches from Mannheim Steamroller.
There are some songs on here which are more suited for play in a club, like the hit "L.A. Rock 01," but these are fairly entertaining, average about 4 minutes long, and the songs that are more instrumental cut the album up nicely. I'm actually having a difficult time finding something wrong with the album. I suppose if you're easily bored, you won't enjoy this album, but most listeners will be humming a hook or two after listening to it. I say buy Vitalic's OK Cowboy.
| STOMP*CLAP*STOMP*CLAP*STOMP*CLAP*STOMP*CLAP |
OK - got that in your head? Keep it there while you read this review.
So Vitalic went out to the same boneyard where Dominik Eulberg goes in his black limo late at night-- said he wanted a couple of bushels of Fleucht to take home for the weekend. But it was dark, and they were tired, and they were low on Fleucht anyway, so they gave him a bag of the stuff that had been festering in the back of the yard for awhile. Shit was weird. Curdled in places. Had little veins of Kreucht running through it. He took it home and snorted the whole damn thing at once, and it made his voice sound like a certain famous nordic horror-techno enthusiast, and after it worked its way through his system it sounded like this.
I will come right out of the gate and say that my tolerance for dance music is at a low ebb right now (it was never that high in the first place, but recent events have pushed it into mouth-foaming aversion) and I still found stuff to admire in this album. It's weird. When he decides to sing, he chops and screws his vocals nine ways from sunday until they sound like Undead Cyborg Yoda come back from the grave to taunt us, or else uses a strangely human-sounding text-to-speech program. His compositions range from the retarded coke-techno of "My Friend Dario" to a piece called "Polkamatic", which actually slows down, speeds up, and occasionally loses the beat. And there is a track on here, "La Rock 01", which won me over by use of a simple trick I've never encountered before - it's standard, vicious, three-chord dance techno, except that the third chord instead of resolving to the first creeps gradually back up to it and then passes it, which fucks with my brain and jerks me headlong into the next bar, where he does it again. Doing this actually bypasses my resistance to... hear that in the back of your head? ... the STOMP*CLAP, which he employs on almost every track on the album, even superimposing it on what would otherwise be comparatively live-sounding drumbeats. When I think of this album I see his willingness to experiment, personified (say) by a large purple rabbit, hauling on one end of a rope, at the other end of which is tied a giant, wetbrained two-headed ogre, sitting in the mud picking its noses. One of the heads is named "stomp". I invite you to guess what the other head's name is.
But man, when he's willing to climb off the dance floor and, say, simulate a marching band, as he does on "Valetta Fanfares"... which is an amazing piece of work in which he creates the sound of a giant, impossibly dexterous drum section marching in and past and out into the distance just by tweaking the imitation 'room dynamics' and reverb... I kinda like him. Just wish he'd ease off on the fucking techno two-step - otherwise jaunty tracks, like the fliply melodic "Wooo", are rendered grating because the drums are way too insistent when the kaleidoscopic keyboards are perfectly capable of pushing the song along themselves. Typically, when he veers off in the other direction, he veers too far, creating rubbery nothingness on the tiresome M83-style brood-off "The Past". I can't complain too much, though. He brings the best synth-noises to the yard, and I mean the best, and he has an ear for melody and composition. But in the end I find vast chunks of the album too boring, too techno, too dance-or-die to actually enjoy. My compromise grade is a burn, and watch this dude. If he decides to grow up a little he could be capable of a whole damn lot.
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Various Artists: Run The Road
|I don't get this album. The entire genre of "grime" just doesn't make any sense to me, I really don't understand how people can like it, and this album is a collection of (presumably) the best artists of said genre. What on earth are kids listening to these days? This album, more than anything else I've reviewed so far, makes me feel old. I'm only 25, but already these crazy kids are coming out with music that just sounds like nonsense to me. And they're British, for Pete's sake. |
The album opens up with a sociopathic, pissed off, homeless (and probably toothless) gang member instructing his minions, one would assume, to go and kill every blood clot. Something about "the 92nd", too. Inevitably, the chorus of gun noises used as percussive effects roll in and the Grime Begins. This song, by Terror featuring Hyper Bruza, D Double E, and Hyper (seem like nice fellas), features a guy so British and so thuggish I expect him to be some hired muscle for a Victorian Era supervillain. This song is basically the audio equivalent of playing Grand Theft Auto for 6 hours.
The album continues in what I consider to be predicatble fashion: raw, gritty, uber-gangster, badass theatre with urban English accents that apparently sound like Jamaican accents now. When did that happen? Along the way I learn that being on your P's and Q's can actually be badass, learn that I can have one of the tracks as a ringtone on account of it being "deep", hear hardened murders wax nostalgia about "Happy Dayz" (including a sample of a Big Bird-style "wow!") and learn about "da rush." That last song, by the way ("Da Rush") has possibly the worst beat I've ever heard. It features a weakly played distored guitar that borrows that oh-so-classic death metal tone and basically sounds like complete garbage. It's like they invited Limp Bizkit over and just deleted Fred Durst's vocal track.
There's also a guest appearance by The Streets, in the form of a revisioning of "Fit But You Know It". Personally, when you compare it to the original, this track highlights everything I don't like about the genre, and is further amplified when The Streets starts going. If I have to find something to compliment, it would be the song "Destruction VIP" which has a slick spy-sounding big band beat and has the most tolerable rapper. Which isn't surprising seeing as the main one rapping on this song is the genre's founder, Wiley.
There's not much else I can say about the music other than these meager observations. The production throughout (except that one song) is well-done, and all of the performances seem like the pinnacle of the genre. I just don't like it. So a burn for me, especially if you don't have any prior exposure to grime. Skip it if you don't like grime, and snap this baby up if you're a fan of it. One last thing, at some point one MC describes himself as "brutal and British", which struck me as hilariously contradictory, but hell, who knows these days? Damn kids.
| People all the time come and ask me, "Isaac" (they say) "Why do you love the 'grime', or 'eski', so much?" And I am all like "Because even if the lyrics are shitty, even if the tracks are weak, even if the rappers step all over the motherfucking beat, like sailors high on cough syrup, I can always just sit back and listen to their funny, funny accents." Which is why this album is a treasure trove for me but you should probably just burn it. |
This comp aims to be a snapshot of the British hip-hop (or grime, or eski, or whatever) scene circa 2005, and like most documents of its type is mostly useful in sorting the bright stars from the also-rans, and the also-rans from the jokes. Also it's a great time to hear established names bring their B-games. Let's run down the standouts.
The surprise winners here are three MCs you've never heard of, No Lay, Ears and the fantastically hyper Goodz. (His song is called "Gimmie Dat". There is a certain charm in being straightforward.) Kano and Wiley are the established artists that come out looking the best - Dizzee Rascal seems kind of limp on his track "Give U More" (although his beats are, as always, the dirtiest, stankiest, and filthiest available). He's self-pitying, refers to himself in the third person on every single line and seems to be obsessed with leaving you in the woods. But luckily No Lay follows him up and proceeds to make your ears crinkle with the kind of up-the-girls fuck-you rap that Lady Sov and M.I.A. should be doing. And the cool thing about this track is that she lays on each element of the beat piece by piece, building from the standard ice-cold moog run, adding a prancing one-two snare, and adding and subtracting ominous synth patterns as she leans on you mercilessly with her lyrics. Shystie has the misfortune to follow her, and when she whines about how hard she's had it and leaves huge chunks of her track open for terribly bad MCs to slobber on we know that she's one of the fake girls NL's rapping about.
That's the first appearance of Bruza, a hilariously clunky rapper and lyricist ("I've seen shit and I've been in shit but I can't complain cause I'm still breathing. I have goals and I've achieved them but I still have goals to achieve.") He shows up again on an unfortunate Run-DMC style metal-rap track called "Da Rush", in which he mostly talks about how much he enjoys Da Rush, and lists the circumstances under which Da Rush can be obtained, including walking into a club and hearing the crowd singing his lyrics, which I hope for the sake of international sanity has never actually happened. That song is great because it basically opens with a disclaimer - sure, this beat sucks, but we've gotta branch out, cause this grime thing isn't gonna last forever. "You can't put all your cookies in one jar", as Demon (who's not bad-- his major downfall is his taste in collaborators) says.
Other standouts include "Destruction VIP", a vicious five-MC jam which isn't marred even by the mushmouthed D Double E slipping and sliding all over the beat, wherein Wiley gets to show off why he should be revered as the founder of the genre-- "Happy Dayz", a truly weird track about the innocent days of childhood courtesy of Ears, which has a beat that dresses up the usual grime tropes with a xylophone and glooping underwater bubbles and a flow that's simultaneously vulnerable and jaunty -- and Kano's "Ps and Qs", which rocks basically because he's rhyming about how being on his Ps and Qs is what sets him apart from other rappers. And of course there's Lady Sov being cheeky on "Cha Ching Cheque 1 2", which you will dig if you like her style, which is basically all about being a superstar even though you're a tiny white-trash girl in sweatpants. At five minutes it goes on way too long for my taste but I know there're folks out there who want to load her directly into their veins, and I can see why when she unloads lines like "My crib doesn't smell like cat's piss cause I don't have a cat, it died -- and standardly, I just cried -- I sounded like one of those female MCs who don't have a clue - no doubt, I never do." It's almost enough to forgive her for taking part in the gang rape of the Streets' "Fit But You Know It", a shameful remix for which Tinchy Stryder should be spanked. And I was so ready for him to be awesome with a name like that.
No question - this one's a burn. Mix and match to your choosing and dig the ineffable britishness.
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New Pornographers: Twin Cinema
|Every single summary of The New Pornographers will tell you that they are a power pop Canadian indie supergroup. Some places might go further and tell you that they don't consider themselves a supergroup. You know what? I don't care that much. Personally, I can tell you that they are Canadian. So fucking Canadian. These guys piss maple syrup. I'm sure that at some point The Guess Who gave them some kind of ring before passing on. Whether they are a supergroup or not is a matter of semantics, but mostly they seem like Superfriends that got together to play some of A.C Newman's songs. |
I say that not because I know about how they work as a band or because Newman sings most of the songs. I say that because the album sounds like Part II to his solo release The Slow Wonder. Even the songs where other members sing have that flavor to them, and presumably (from my experience) if you are singing on a song in this kind of group, it's "yours". But that's not to say that it matters, as far as quality is concerned, it's just very useful to know that one's taste will most likely be interchangeable between discs. It's not completely the same — this album is a little more ambitious in terms of song structure, arrangement, and other various tricks.
The first one that struck me was on "Falling Through Your Clothes", where the chorus is essentially a riff performed as if it were stuck on repeat. The quiet intro of "The Bones Of An Idol" utilizes a glockenspiel in lieu of say, a piano. "The Jessica Numbers" is mostly straight forward except for some very nice usage of room reverb. Basically, this album is a little more spacious, a little more stop'n'go, with a few neat touches thrown in here and there.
That said, I've got mixed feelings about the album on its own. The first thing that The New Pornographers excel at is being catchy, sometimes even going over the top. Hooks are stuffed into each section of each song, and you cannot listen to any song on here without it getting some bit of it in your head for at least the next 10 minutes. What's more is that they are able to take melodies that would otherwise be unremarkable and make them palatable with a clever harmony or some other element, such as the pre-chorus to "Sing Me Spanish Techno". And I've heard "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Use It" on TV commercials or other such venues at least a couple times, and it's well-deserved.
The negative side is that I can't quite get excited about this album. None of the lyrics were able to really grab my attention to draw me into it, nor did I find myself particularly moved by any of the songs. As a result, I haven't found this on my playlist very often because repeat listenings begin to become tiresome; the returns on this album diminish pretty quickly.
Ultimately, this album is all about fun, power pop, which is what I think The New Pornographers are going for, and that's fine with me. I'd say Twin Cinema definitely deserves a place on your CD rack, or whatever it is kids are using these days. iPods? Buy the darn thing either way.
I was listening to All Songs Considered on NPR, where a passel of old-timey music critics were sitting around slinging opinions about the best music of 2005. This album didn't make any of their lists, but it came up in the conversation, in admiring but cautious tones. One reviewer compared it to Fleetwood Mac - and the other said, "Come on. Fleetwood Mac could not have written 'The Bleeding Heart Show'." And that was pretty much that. They respected it enough to place it beyond the reach of one of the most beloved acts of the 70s, but nobody was willing to stick their necks out and call it great music. Is it because A.C. Newman insists on writing riddles for lyrics? Is it because their drummer appears to be doing a slightly ironic Keith Moon impression, to the point where you can almost see him tossing his drumsticks and catching them between fills? Is it because they don't see the soul amongst all the homage and synthesis?
If that's it, then they are so terribly wrong - cause not only does this album represent a step up in musical diversity from the Pornographers' already-classic earlier albums, it cranks up the intimacy and emotional presence to match. You don't even really have to understand what A.C. and the immeasurable Neko Case are singing. The intent is there and plain in the music. And it's about three minutes into the aforementioned 'Bleeding Heart Show', when the slow, balladeering opening of the song has long been forgotten, when the driving, insistent insouciance of the middle section is gone, when the backup vocals dig in and the beat really catches for the first time, the drums change up three times in fifteen seconds, and those "hey-la"s start pouring in from all sides of the mix... it's about that time when you realize they're really onto something, and you'd better surrender to it. They got the melodica, they got the twinkling, tinkling keyboards, they've got those thunderous show-off drum fills, and they've got gravitas, a certain seasoned quality that slows down their ritalin hook-to-hook pop but gives it a depth it never had before. And then the guitars of "Jackie Dressed in Cobras" thunder in, and you realize that Dan Bejar has finally brought his A-game, when he sings "see something in the way she moves just shouldn't be allowed, oh" as if his libertine heart broke decades ago but he can still feel it every second of every day. Those swooning, off-kilter meters! That precise, mountainous start-stop!
The thing is, none of it's musically complicated, at least in terms of the chords deployed. The trick is in the rhythm, the melody, and the panache. The ubiquity of Neko Case on this album, finally freed from the guest-spot appearances of their last two albums, makes a lot of the difference on that last stage. Her voice is what you would get if you squeezed the strawberry-blond freckled tomboy out of your MGM daydreams and made her a witch. She can add nothing but texture, as on the magisterial "Jessica Numbers", where her voice pinching the edges of the mix keeps the bizarre time signature from breaking away into lumbering awkwardness and noise - or she can anchor the whole shebang, as on "These Are The Fables", a slow-burning, piano pop ballad that loses the piano, grows in smooth pop momentum as it reminisces and then picks up the piano and changes it into... and once again I feel like I'm lacking the proper references for this stuff, but the effect it achieves with its stabbing chords transforms the entire song and reminds me of raw-edged eighties cabaret pop I never heard.
There are no weak songs in the first half hour of this album. The nearest that we get is the album centerpiece "Sing Me Spanish Techno", which is very catchy and features some toothsome falsetto vocals from Newman on the chorus but which runs a bit too long without switching up its themes. (I would probably find it far less tiresome in other company, but among songs which fizz and divide and explore so easily it seems almost like a concession to beginning listeners, balanced, of course, against particularly obtuse lyrics.) The final quarter of the album has a few saggy bits, such as "Three or Four", which without the drums and Case's vocals might've been an outtake from Newman's solo album, leaching a little too much out of an admittedly towering hook. But "Star Bodies", which rocks you up one end of your brain and down the other in a way that would verge on dirty country if it weren't for the prancingly proggy outro, complete with xylophone, makes up for it. Similarly, the relatively simple folk-rock-tinged lament "Streets of Fire" might've been more at home on one of Bejar's Destroyer albums, but the closer, "Stacked Crooked", is weird and majestic enough to make you forget all about it. Huge open-fifth vocal harmonies, discordant horn stabs, swelling, receding fake-you-out rhythms, and a final build that caps the album off by launching it into space are balanced on top of a true-blue chugging drum kit that makes a song out of what would otherwise have been a glorious mess. Which is a fair way to describe the whole album, come to think of it.
Easily worth a buy.
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Isolee: We Are Monster
|If you compare this with Vitalic's OK Cowboy, you'll get an idea of what I was trying to get across with that review. Isolee is very much a constructor rather than a composer, and it appears that his real strength lies in his command of tone and mood. No album says "smoky, mostly empty dance club at 4am" to me than this one does. |
The album is also very pleasing to listen to, and in a way that isn't obvious. Every patch, from the drums to the guitar to the lead is subdued and slightly ambient without going overboard. Restraint is the name of the game on this album, and Isolee manages to make soothing and gorgeous sounds with a surprising degree of minimalism. The album is consistent as a whole, too; all the songs flow smoothly with no bumps. What's more is that all this smoothness and uniformity doesn't result in blandness. Okay, sure, it doesn't really jump out and grab you, but it isn't boring.
But it's not exciting, either. Hell, it's laid back techno done expertly, and that to me means I have very little use for it. Personally, the hardest records to review are the electronic ones. Not so much because I don't have a lot of experience (I don't), but like grime, I just can't get that into the whole genre. It sounds great (recording-wise), but there's a part of me that says "okay, it's some guy with a MIDI keyboard and some synths that spent a lot of time on something."
Maybe I'm just more interested in notes and how they speak to the listener rather than sound landscapes, which I always felt provided a canvas for a song rather than being a focal point. That's why I don't care a whole lot about this album: none of the notes are that interesting. There are some neat spots, though: "Schrapnell" has a nice riff, and "Jelly Baby Fish" is awfully catchy. But overall, I'd say that this would be an album to burn and play at parties. But hey, if you like electronica or techno, this is a good an album as any.
| So the next day, Isolée went out to the boneyard, too, and hand-selected a hundredweight of Kreucht. He took it back to his studio, took out his extensive collection of instruments, and carefully rendered it into an album. He didn't poke it too much - just made it refined, noisy when it should be noisy, parpy when it should be parpy, flatulent when it should be flatulent. He put some guitar noise on there, and some synth noise, and some piano, and some random plucky things, and even some live drums. There were moments when he decided he wanted to sound like a full band, and he even sang a little, occasionally, in his very staid continental way, burying his voice deep in the kreucht to keep things refined. Then he stabbed it through with random, "artsy" noises, divided it into ten tracks, and for garnish scattered around a few umlauts. |
And good lord does the result bore me. This is a collection of extremely well-groomed noises, individually panned and flanged and distorted with great attention to detail, and then arranged over beats designed to keep your ice-cold heart pumping as you take your early morning jog down the crisply-manicured streets of your Bauhaus enviro-village hive cluster. There are moments when he lets his artistic side get the better of him, as on "Face B", where the sheer irritation of the grating, flapping synth noise he's pushed way to the front overwhelms the enervating pleasantness of the beat behind it, but for the most part it's that same idea. It doesn't really matter whether he's (somewhat ineptly) playing reverb-drenched guitar and muttering ("Today") or going entirely mid-tempo techno ("My Hi-Matic"). There is nothing in the way of music here. The chord progressions are rudimentary or non-existent. It's all about the texture, which is impressive from a technical standpoint but useless - if you sit down and listen to this music carefully, it becomes maddening, and if you use it as background for whatever task you're doing, the texture becomes irrelevant and only the beats stand out. This is a more mature, assured piece of work than "OK Cowboy" by a fair stretch, but god, I'd go with that over this any day. If I had to pick a track off it to listen to, it would be the opener, "Pictureloved", which is competent and doesn't suffer from the compulsion present on the rest of the album to scatter sonic shrapnel through a perfectly reasonable chill-out record.
I say skip.
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email: dranger aatt gmail doott com & ajhoffer att gmail dott com