2004, 22-19 Foreign Exchange, Fennesz, Air and Bjork

Foreign Exchange
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Foreign Exchange: Connected

I have no idea what to say about this album. Sure, I could describe it: it's your standard set of hip-hop songs, but the beats and samples are slightly floatier, and they talk a lot about how other rappers rhymes aren't so good. It's all very smooth and produced, with a few little tricks in there (like talk-box style on one of the choruses). Pretty simple right? I could talk about the overall mood of the album: a chill, slightly melancholy piece made up of small observations about life. But I still have no idea what to say.

The problem with this album is that it doesn't have any real part that sticks out. It doesn't have anything memorable, and it doesn't have anything that makes me as a listener want to pay attention. But you know, I think we've shown that to be the kind of thing Pitchfork people love. To them it's all about the "mood", but for me it has to be a little bit more than that - the mood has to be exceptional, the kind of mood that hits you when you feel it, the kind of song that has the potential to crystallize a single moment and put everything into perspective (or at least a different perspective). But that's not what Foreign Exchange offers. Instead, someone might think, "gosh, that is a hip-hop beat playing and people are harmonizing over it occasionally and I can vaguely make out people making rhymes." This is like a template of hip-hop, like those form letters Microsoft Word comes with. I imagine Clippy popping up in the studio with Foreign exchange: "It looks like you're trying to record a hip-hop album. Would you like to..."

I should mention that the beginning of the album starts off with a little "thank you" R&B ditty to kick things off, but honestly it just sounds like the newest rap version of the "Thank You For Coming To Loews" theme song. At least those movie theater intros are interesting. Remember that one where the girl soda kissed the boy popcorn and he got so excited that popcorn flew everywhere? You were really missing out if your theater never had that one. Man, nowadays it's all like "please don't pirate our movies." Boo fucking hoo. Oh yeah, skip Connected by Foreign Exchange.

I'm just sitting here trying to figure out how Pitchfork evaluates hip-hop and what's wrong with me that I don't seem to be able to follow their logic. This stuff is nice, but resolutely unspectacular... the beat is smooth, yes, very smooth indeed, but the lyrics are grown-up-hard rap-cliche boilerplate. Sure, it's not actively sexist, ultraviolent or idiotic, but do you really get points just for failing to be horrible?

Man it's smooth, though. It's like you sanded all the rough edges off the Fugees or something. So.... smooth. Smoother than smooth. Like the underside of a plump child's upper arm. And there's an awful lot of it. Really long album. Awful lot of smooth. Oh god. And then on tracks like "Sincere", when the tunefully layered R&B vocals enter the mix, we reach a level of mellow which threatens to transcend smooth and enter a realm of pure buttery satin. Listening to this album I feel like I'm in a warm bath with scented candles and mood lighting and a couple of large black men.

Wow, now that I put it that way I can see where some folks might really like this stuff. Still, not my cup of tea. I have no idea where I'm going to pull another paragraph from. I could talk about the extra remix tracks on the version of the album I got here. Guess what? They're smooth. If you asked me to point out which tracks were remixed and which were the originals I couldn't do it on a bet.

I guess it gets points because it's southern rap that doesn't sound like Southern Rap and that it pursues a musical direction which is underused these days, deploying actual melodic happiness in the beat. But other than that I don't got much to say bout it.

So I'm pretty much going to stop writing this review now. I guess if you want to be soothed but with Street Flava this album is for you. If not, skip it.

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Fennesz: Venice

This top 50 has me spooked. As soon as this album started, I panicked as I heard the first long synth note being played, followed by ambient noises with stereo delay on them. Sometimes, I wonder about Pitchfork writers' other interests. Do they sit for hours staring at a lava lamp, going "ooooh it's like another universe twisting and turning before my eyes, like a primordial cosmic entity blah blah blah..."? Do they like to just turn on the channel that doesn't come in and watch the static? But like I said, this top 50 has me jumping the gun. Fennesz is nowhere near as bad as all the other "mood" music that has been foisted upon me in the recent weeks.

The best part is this: Fennesz seems to actually try with some of his music. The first part of the album are the typical "look! chords!" electronic synth, but they have a slight quality about them that makes me not completel hate them, although "City of Light" is a silly exercise in seeing how long you can make a single chord a song. But if an album has some of these tracks, I honestly don't mind, as they are a refreshing breather that allows you to kind of cleanse your palette, like green tea after sushi. But no one likes green tea so much they want it to be their whole meal. (Not even the Japanese; trust me.) "The Other Face" has some neat sounds, the beat supplied by what sounds like splashing oil. But then, the next track, he starts singing.

He has a very nice deep voice, and on the song "Transit", he gives us a - gasp - melody and what's more, harmonies. It really works well for such a slow song, and Fennesz finally pulls out the full dynamic ability that has been lurking under the surface of all the previous tracks on the album. And that's why I think they really try - unlike previous offerings, we get a sense of dynamics other than "get louder as we reach the end of the song!" Later on, the guitar is broken out in "Laguna", playing some nice instrumental tracks that would work on several soundtracks. The album of course ends on the distortion fest "The Stone of Impermanence."

This looks like it's supposed to be an Epic, Serious album - the tracks are named wondefully pretentious things, it has short interlude tracks leading into the next song, and it has a good deal of range. I'm just not impressed. Some of it sounds pretty, and some of it is actually good, it's just not a real life-changer. If I burn this, there is a slight chance that I will break it out later to either add to a quirky animation I've made or use it to study or fall asleep. But I will enjoy listening to it. And that's why I want you to burn this album. It's really not worth paying money for, but you won't regret spending your precious time popping it in your car while you drive to work.

I'm reading a book by Italo Calvino called "Invisible Cities", which is in theory about stories Marco Polo told the great Khan but is in fact a deconstruction of Calvino's home town of Venice. It's beautiful -- it gives you a million different ways to look at the city, so by the time you finish the book you feel like you've been through the city a million different ways, like you can touch it and hear it and smell it.

Listening to Fennesz' "Venice", on the other hand, you feel mostly as if you're gently dissolving in a bath of rancid milk. In an odd way this is what "the disintegration loops" should have sounded like -- swells of sound are crosshatched and marred by massive fields of static and pinpricks of distortion, arranged somehow in such a way that you can hear the background perfectly well even as the interference ripples over everything. I don't know how this music was achieved ... there's an oddly organic quality to the interference, as if it was created by leaving naked plugs hanging in the air and blowing graphite dust at them... the reality is probably a lot more mundane, but I have a great deal of respect for this stuff, some of it. The album gets better as it goes along, with the interference increasing in potency and complexity, and I have to admit that sometimes when the drone swells to a crescendo it feels almost as if you're being crushed under it. This stuff has a physical effect on you. And I very much love the fact that three quarters of the way through the album on "Transit" suddenly there's a vocalist, mixed high and clear, ruminating about the fate of Europe and the decay of civilization. It's oddly nice that alone among the 'experimental' music that we've had so far this album goes and makes its thematic point explicit, giving you a sense of how it can be interpreted as a piece of programmatic music rather than just a lot of wanking. You can understand how this music is actually about decay, where the distortion loops were about the Concept of decay. The touch of the creator is everywhere here and that puts it on another level -- if you'll let me be pretentious for a second, the intentionality of the artist expresses disintegration in a way that the literal embodiment of it cannot.

So I'd say without a doubt it's the best of the formless, ambient albums we've heard so far. That isn't really saying much, and I have to tell you that I probably won't go back and listen to this again, not only because one can get bored during the opening tracks but because it is sometimes physically unpleasant to give the songs the attention that they need to reward you, given as I said the feedback some of the swells create, at least in my system. This is womb music, like some of My Bloody Valentine's stuff. You really only want to listen to it intentionally and in circumstances where you're prepared to be carried away by it, and to notice the way that actual melodic music occasionally creeps in underneath the distortion and drone. Oddly enough I think it would go well in a planetarium -- or underscoring modern dance of some kind -- it would benefit from a visual component and a captive audience, to keep attention focused squarely on the momentum of the piece. Swells and withdrawals.

Burn it for the times when you need a small shock to your system or you need very badly to be taken out of yourself.

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Air: Talkie Walkie

I really didn't want to give this band a chance. Right off the bat, the awful lyrics, "You could be from Venus / I could be from Mars" assaulted me on my headphones as I stepped out to get some lunch. Things weren't off to a very good start. Air are graduates of the famous Billy Corgan School of Advanced Songwriting - or at least it just sounds like they are. I don't mean the Smashing Pumpkins, either, I mean his solo stuff. Which, as it includes both Smashing Pumpkins' Adore and Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea album, is truly a mixed bag. Some strange pitch shifting on the track "Run" makes it sound like Crazy Frog decided to show his softer side and record a "serious" song for once.

But a strange thing - listening to the album again, and on repeat, I actually began to enjoy it. The Billy Corgan style is not as prevalent on the other tracks, and where it is present, it strays toward the good side of things. This album also has instrumental tracks which are fabulous. "Mike Mills" is a beautiful keyboard-led song that sounds a little like a baroque piece backed up by classical guitar, and is interspersed by a piano playing a scale. But unlike most instrumentals I've been hearing lately, this one has dynamics and chord changes. Can you imagine? "Alpha Beta Gaga" features a catchy whistling riff surrounded by a looped rock beat, beautifully sampled strings, and a banjo. These pieces are slightly repetitive but Air manages to tie all the parts together to make a work that is dynamic, complex, and absolutely beautiful sounding. The spectacular, album-ending "Alone in Kyoto" is the real highlight of the instrumentals. The first part is a simple acoustic guitar with simple synth beats that remind me of pizzacato strings, and the piano thunders in on the chorus. The song ends "Layla" style with a soft, sweet piano melody. (I've never been alone in Kyoto, so I don't know if it accurately portrays this, but I'm sure my partner has, so look over and see if he mentions it.) It succeeds where other electronic music fails: it's not lazy. It's highly layered, and while it repeats parts (all pop music does) they don't just phone it in and hit "loop." And they're all under 5 minutes.

The songs with lyrics are almost as good, but there are some medicore tracks. On "Biological", "Universal Traveler", and "Another Day", the melody isn't quite compelling enough, but to be fair, "Biological" has some parts that really shine, like the excellent chorus, and the breakdown that has handclaps that sound like someone biting into a potato chip. "Run" would probably be a truly wonderful song if they didn't have the pitch shifting, but it gives the song its character, so it's a tough call there. The other vocal tracks, "Venus", "Cherry Blossom Girl", and "Surfing on a Rocket" are all a little bit cheesy but nice in that Billy Corgan kind of way.

I'm going to stretch this one a bit and say that you should buy it despite the silly album name because I don't think anyone will actually regret purchasing this album. It's not bad in any way, it sounds pretty, and it's got some replay value.

Oh...shit. Guess what this music is? Opposite of rough?

There's more here to keep me occupied, though, thank god. Air is a pair of French electronic musicians who invite in a variety of guest vocalists, most of whom seem to be girls with alluring asian or european accents, to glaze their backing tracks. These tunes range from near-Enya levels of new-age butteriness ("Run") to deflated eurodisco ("Surfing On A Rocket") to Penguin Cafe Orchestra-style minimalist chamber music (the beautiful "Mike Mills".)

When this album is good, it is very, very good. At its worst (on unfortunately-positioned opener "Venus", the aforementioned "Surfing") it's disposable. One is reminded of the Notwist, except with less underlying personality. What they got going for them is a big sweaty knack for arrangement, which means that when they get their hands on an interesting melody they can carry it all the way to the end zone. As it were. But on "Venus," where there are about two chords to be getting along with, all the production glitz in the world isn't going to hide an underlying lack of substance. And god help me but when they sing themselves it's annoying. If they stuck to their native language it might work out all right, but everything's in rather floofy slidey English.

If you have a tolerance built up for unabashed pop music, songs like "Cherry Blossom Girl" will tickle your fancy -- and I say that even as I admit that the only real distinction between that and "Venus" is a few more chord changes (including a minor passing tone, which is pretty much all I need) and a slightly less annoying vocalist. This is one of those albums that really makes me stop and think about what it is in music that keeps my attention, how the difference between hate it and kinda dig it can just be a tiny bit of extra complexity or a difference in the tone with which the song is handled. And whether that translates into an objective difference in quality or not. Another spin on it is I tend to prefer the songs on this album which have a thematic orientalist spin, like the beautiful and evocative "Alone in Kyoto", which has just the right amount of electronic tweaking ( i.e. very, very little, applied judiciously) and focuses on the sound of acoustic instruments. It's measured and delicate and all in all very enjoyable. But I'm not sure I'd want to listen through the rest of the album to get to it. All in all I think Air is at their best when they focus on live instrumentation and leave the keyboards or laptop tweaking as the embellishment rather than the core.

Before I lay down my verdict here I have to mention "Biological", which is another one where the Air boys themselves sing, and which is the creepiest let's-get-it-on song I think I've ever heard. It's worth a listen, for the string stings that sound like Sea Change-era Beck and for the entirely incongruous appearance of a banjo on the chorus. And for the sensation of being woo'd clammily by a borderline necrophiliac for six minutes.

So. Given that I really like about half of these songs and could care less about the other half, let's give this a solid burn. Make your own playlist out of it according to your personal musical weirdness.

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Bjork: Medulla

I don't listen to nearly enough Bjork. By this I mean that I haven't actually sought out her music as much as you think I would - I really like Bjork. She somehow manages to combine pop songs with problably the strangest sounds known to man, and indeed, Bjork is known for being a complete lunatic. (Also for wearing a swan dress.) So I was really excited when I found there was a new Bjork album I didn't know about - although I really should have known about it.

Right away one notices that this is not a completely normal or accessible album - even for Bjork standards. First of all it's almost completely acapella (there are a few instruments on a couple songs). Bjork's been at this game for years; her first solo album came out in 1993. So it's not surprising when a lot of this album sounds like Bjork... sampling Bjork. But there's a lot more sounds on this album. She worked a lot with other vocalists and mouth-sound-makers so it has a grittier, more gutteral sound than other Bjork albums. It's also a lot sparser in places, with the focus on vocals, like on "Show Me Forgiveness", which is Bjork singing alone on a single track acapella. It spans a surprisingly large ground, with songs ranging from classic Bjork-style pop hits to what are best described as bizarre vocal "experiments."

The album has a lot of good points. "Where is the Line" gets points for absolutely scaring the shit out of me as I walked from my house to the 7/11 at 1AM. Really, I was spooked in Japan. That's fuckin' impressive. Slipknot or Korn or whoever just wishes they could be half this fucking demonic. It's like she has an Icelandic choir backing her up with the most evil motherfucker on the planet singing lead tenor. "Vokuro", one of the many songs on the album to be sung in Icelandic, sounds like a church choir and would fit in well with an Orthodox mass, as does "Sonnet Unrealities IX". "Who Is It", probably the best song on the album, features Rahzel (of Roots fame) on a sweet beatbox. This song has a fabulously huge hook and ranks up there with some of her best material. "Triumph of the Heart" features a decidedly Japanese-sounding "wiki-wiki-wai" beat box (not surprising, since it's Japanese beatboxer Dokaka) is another excellent peace which is more hip-hop influenced than anything I've heard from Bjork. It sounds like Rip Slyme is backing her up.

The spotlight of this album is the beautiful production. It is an acapella album, but it does not sound like one in the very least. It sounds like a Bjork album, but with something missing that you can't just put your finger on. It sounds sparser and more open... and then you realize that there are no instruments being played. The news isn't all good though, as many of the songs on the album seem without direction and are mostly an exuse to put Bjork in front of a mic and just let her sing, like a caged bird. Also, "Mouth's Cradle" is probably my least favorite Bjork song ever, but only because I don't count "Ancestors" as a song. It's more a recording of Bjork and a caveman having weird Bjork-and-caveman sex, with some piano playing in the background like in some artsy film about depression.

The album has many good songs on it, and it is an absolute triumph technically, but who is going to find this more than mildly interesting? Hardcore Bjork fans sure will, so they will buy it, but the rest of humanity should probably burn it.

I've listened to this album a bunch of times over the past year or two and I still don't know what I think about it. For those not in the know, the premise is this: Bjork, mistress of all that is fairylike and weird, does an album which is scored mostly for just the human voice, whether in the form of choristers, beatboxers, tuvan throat singers, beats formed out of grunts and hums or just folks who breathe artistically. The effect is for the most part majestic -- the tracks are mixed and layered with fantastic subtlety. And Bjork, as usual, can't be accused of composing simplistic music. The songs draped in all this prettiness have all the oddness and complexity that we've come to expect from her. Emotion comes through easily with all these human voices hanging around. And there're songs here like "Vokuro" that are just staggeringly beautiful and foreign, which sound like they could be centuries-old Icelandic melodies, even if they're not.

All that being said if someone asked me to pull out a Bjork album this wouldn't be the one I'd reach for. Not even in the top three, really. It's just hard to know under what circumstances you'd want to listen to this. There were songs on "Post" and "Homogenic" that I felt spoke to me personally, and there were hooks, things that stuck in your mind and propelled you forward. This music seems intended for Bjork herself, and since we for the most part are not beings as exalted or ethereal as her it is sometimes hard to find a way in. There are two pop songs on this album, "Who Is It" and "Triumph Of A Heart" -- two pop songs on an album with fourteen tracks -- and it's my misfortune to find the first one kind of uninspiring. So I'm left with one song on the album that I can really dig myself into, which happens to be the very last one. The rest pass by in a haze of prettiness and don't remain with me. (Okay, there's "Oceania", with its almost old-school trip-hop style. And the excellent, shambling "Mouth's Cradle", which has a weird, circular feel to it but draws definite pop momentum from its gasps and gulps. But you get the point.)

You should definitely burn this album just to hear sounds that you're not likely to hear anywhere else, like the moaning breath-artists on "Ancestors". And "Triumph Of A Heart" is stonkingly good, and brings together an American beatboxer and a Japanese beatboxer in a true international fusion of funk. I'd say buy it, cause it's better in terms of sheer quality than other albums I've asked you to buy... but it feels wrong somehow, it's a matter of consistency... curse this arbitrary rating system! Curse all arbitrary rating systems! Down with lists! Down with lists!

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