2005, 30-27 Franz Ferdinand, Serena Maneesh, Sunn 0))) and Jamie Lidell

Franz Ferdinand
Serena Maneesh
Sunn 0)))
Jamie Lidell
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Franz Ferdinand: You Could Have It So Much Better

Right in the middle of the Top 50 (usually the dullest of places), Franz Ferdinand comes right along and shows 'em how it's done. Coming off their enormously successful self-titled debut album, Franz Ferdinand digs deeper into its own niche, perfecting its own style, and then going beyond it successfully. You Could Have It So Much Better is a very, very polished album. They are the band that comes on after the decently good opening band and shows just how wide the gulf is between them. They've got the crowd into it, they sound cleaner, and it's clear who the people are there to see. From a hit debut album to an even better sophmore release, Franz Ferdinand is, in a word, professional. And this time around, we didn't have to hear the DJ explain for the 15th time how clever their historical name was.

The album starts off with a simple guitar riff, quickly brings the rest of the band, and it becomes very clear: Franz Ferdinand is a fun band. Normally, on this first track, you'd get the now-ubiquitous disco style beat, but Franz Ferdinand turns it into a just-as-dancable shuffle beat. There's some sweet instrumental guitar interplay here, the chorus is catchy as anything, and the music is solid. The only thing missing is some kind of deep emotional impact — but that's okay, because that's not what Franz Ferdinand is about. They're about having fun, and in their words, "making music that girls will want to dance to." You might be wondering, don't I fault bands for this? The difference with Franz is that they are completely honest, and they are good enough songwriters that the result doesn't feel processed like American cheese. They just play good rock and roll. "Do You Want To", the Big Single on the album, starts off with a sloppy, garage band opening but then kicks into the simple dance beat section. But they bring back that part later, only transformed to the new style. What I'm trying to get at is that this band has depth, are making real contributions to rock and roll, yet remain accessible to just about everyone. That's a real accomplishment.

You could have said that about Franz Ferdinand on the previous album, but here they are better at it. In addition, they've also tried to move beyond the typical Franz Ferdinand sound. "Walk Away" has strong spaghetti Western influences and acoustic guitar, but they make it work with their style. Helping them, of course, is the power of the lead singer's voice and their ability to write hooks just about anywhere. "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" is a piano driven song which reminds me somewhat of Spoon. This kind of song, actually, is what I wish Spoon was. "Fade Together" is another song in the same vein. The rest of the songs are in the dancy, Franz Ferdinand power rock style, but don't let that description fool you: they don't all sound exactly alike.

Really, the low point of the album are those songs where fatigue starts to set in: Franz Ferdinand is very professional about its music, but at one point on the album you start to get a little tired of the excitement. The first is the song "Well That Was Easy", which in addition to being a mediocre song, follows the mellow "Eleanor", so while it is intended to jump start your excitement after a short rest, it's too forceful. For me the album kind of coasts from there until you get to the title track, "You Could Have It So Much Better", where the lead singer changes up his delivery somewhat, really switching things up and providing some much needed novelty.

Overall, though, if you bought their debut album, this is an album you should definitely buy. If you didn't, I would suggest this album as an introduction to Franz Ferdinand over the debut. (Needless to say, if you are opposed to the idea of Franz Ferdinand, you probably won't like this.)

Oh my god, it's rock and roll? With melodies? Real melodies? Thank you, you crazy scotsmen. This album is just such a relief - we haven't had any really decent rock since Spoon, and that barely counts - that I don't know if I'll be able to be entirely objective about it.

Objective. I crack myself up.

So we open with "The Fallen", which as a song kicks the stuffing out of anything 2005's had to offer so far. It's almost hard to explain why -- is it the skanky, sinuous, almost Bond-ian lick? Is it the the fact that it has at least three separate parts, not including the rhythm-section-only verse and the abruptly major-key bridge with the La La Las? Is it the theme - a song for rebellious kids everywhere, a big old fuck-you in the "let he is without sin cast the first stone" mold? Is it the "hoo-hoo" background vocals? Is it the complex structure, the melody with its unexpected dips and flats? Or is it just because it's a hell of a lot of fun? And then we get "Do What You Want", which starts us off with a verse that's 100% early Beatles and then slathers Cars-esque rubbery stomp all over it. And then adds a dollop of FF's trademarked gay disco juice. This is the way to do style homages - flip shit together at random and then make it your own. And then do... geez, I don't know how to describe the bridge of this song, except the guitars seems to be built out of flaming tires. And all this for a song that is, as far as I can tell, about letting someone do you in the butt.

The album is not all up to this standard, inevitably -- for one thing, half of the songs seem to be about a break-up, and while there's nothing wrong with that in principle it doesn't work very well with Kapranos' fey seducer persona. His vocals seem a little deflated, becuase it's hard to strut while you're singing about people walking out on you, over and over. And as tends to happen when heartbreak is involved, the lyrics get a little dumber... it's hard to talk about how she done you wrong without repeating yourself, over and over again, as you watch people's smiles of sympathy freeze into get-me-out-of-here rictuses. Not. That I am bitter. Where was I?

Oh yeah. There's plenty going on here anyway. There is for example the two minutes of rawk that comprise "Evil And A Heathen", which makes me think of a disco White Stripes. I'm a sucker for riffs that're nothing but descending chords. And there's "Eleanor Put Your Boots On", which with its piano and rock'n'roll cello is an obvious homage to that other song about an Eleanor.. it takes a lot of balls to get your Beatles on more than once or twice on an album, but FF have the brio and (somewhat surprisingly) the chops to pull it off. And... whoof, "What You Meant". This song combines three distinct brands of awesome, one of which is Beatles-flavored, one of which is pop-rock hooky as hell, and one... It's hard to describe why that particular riff is so all-devouring. I think it's the fingerpicked acoustic guitar which gently draws your brain out through your right ear while the rest of the instruments distract you on the left with a buttery groove.

This album, although it is to my ears a little more filler-heavy than their first and doesn't contain quite as many easy radio hits, tells me that Franz Ferdinand are not a flash in the pan and could probably become one of the great bands of this generation if they keep pushing the sheer strength of their songwriting. The title track is oddly flat, more interesting for its lyrical content than for the song itself, and has a shout-along chorus that seems designed to hook the masses rather than to further the song -- but if that's what they have to do to survive, and to leave us with beautiful numbers like "Fade Together", a sad little pop song that succeeds entirely on the basis of its melody, then more power to them. Buy this album so they can become the newer, femmier, rubber-clad disco-rock Fab Four.

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Serena Maneesh: Serena Maneesh

What does it take to be indie? Is it being completely insane? Having a funny voice? Making music so off the wall and jarring that it parodies the idea of music itself? Is it being hauntingly emotional and deep? Joking aside, Serena Maneesh seems to have decided the indie route of "droning guitar music with whispered vocals drenched in reverb and saturated with analog distortion". In other words, they are Kim Gordon Sonic Youth meets M83. And maybe a little of Comets on Fire. Serena Maneesh from beginning to end is a huge wall of guitar fuzz, like you are listening to everything with a buzzing tube amp strapped to your head.

The album starts off well enough, and despite being a mid-tempo drone shoegaze kind of song, it's still nice to listen to—the song has a catchy guitar riff, clear 80s stereo canyon reverb vocals that complement the mass of analog noise, and a good sense of pacing without rushing or forcing the song, and it only weighs in at 3 and some minutes. The next starts off with a simple yet effective guitar chugging away, and throws in a bass, and then repeats this one line interspersed only by a chorus for about 6 minutes. The song seriously starts to drag around 4:30, having spent its climax on a particularly excellent guitar solo (fabulous tone) a minute and a half previous. The next song is thankfully short, so much so that it seems to have been made to make up for the rest of the album. The next song, "Candlelighted" is the real centerpiece of guitar noise and solo wankery, providing a subpar soundtrack to a lame movie about the 60s where someone totally drops acid and everything is just fucked up, man. What's worse is that the rhythm guitar is almost the same as it was two songs ago.

"Beehiver II", which exists despite there not being a "Beehiver I", follows in the same mold, this time throwing Kim Gordon influence into the mix. The album goes through about 15 more minutes of analog noise and guitar noodling before finally giving us a break on "Don't Come Down Here". Finally, Serena Maneesh has allowed us to remove our earplugs and hear again as they do their best Air impression, with soft airy vocals and similar chords on an acoustic guitar and no lack of synth. Problem being, it goes on for 7 minutes with no real direction except for an (admittedly awesome) heavy distorted bridge. This might have been fine on another album, but at this point, I'm sick of it. The freewheeling guitar thrashing (in the chaotic shitty way, not the sexy hair metal way), the analog noise, the voices covered up behind mountains of distortion or reverb, and the pure assault on the ears has gone on long enough. Somewhere along the way on this album, it just gets fucking stupid. The album finally ends with 9 minute long build up of nonsense including a bongo drum loop culminating in the same repetitive noise-over-chords we've heard the whole time. But it wouldn't be complete with out a fade into a 2 minute long pretentious piano piece.

If you like wallowing in tube amp noise, then Serena Maneesh is the album for you. If you like melody, or variety, or music, you can do better than Serena Maneesh; skip it.

Serena Maneesh is a "Band A meets Band B" outfit -- and as I've mentioned before, the success or failure of bands like that depend on the personality and songwriting chops driving the mess onward. SM, however, have picked really good antecedents - specifically My Bloody Valentine and the Velvet Underground. They have a distinct MBV mode and a distinct VU mode (sometimes switching back and forth within a single song, which is highly entertaining). They also have an OMG let's get stoned and jam mode态which doesn't serve them particularly well, but let's gloss over that for the time being. I like the Velvet Underground bits better, cause they sound like the VU being molested by MBV, as opposed to the MBV bits, which just... sound like MBV, melodies, chord structures and all. And the drummer has this thunderous Moe Tucker four-to-the-floor thump he does on the floor tom, which pleases me in a reptilian sort of way and makes me jump around like a moron when the Velvetiest of the songs on this album come on. Unfortunately (and typically) most of the material here doesn't make me jump around, focusing me instead on questions like "how does he get away with biting this so thoroughly?" or "Could you please stop the endless noise solo now?"

The problem here is that there's not a lot of songwriting at work. The first song on the album, "Drain Cosmetics", is a strong exception -- it's a great stomping rocker with hooks that get stuck in your head and a triumphal guitar line to go with the pound of the rhythm section. But after that for the most part we get treated to the same chords and melodies over and over, or to endless rock-outs hung on four-bar themes which are cool and all but are still, y'know, four bars. This does work sometimes -- the album closer, "Your Blood In Mine", takes four notes and spends seven minutes going apeshit with them in a credible Sister Ray impression, even snaking some baritone sax and keyboard wrinkles into the mix. But by the end, you're starting to get tired of it -- it's a reminder of why the Velvets were so great, that they could stretch a theme like this out for seventeen minutes and still keep you inside the song. Serena Maneesh lack the single-mindedness or discipline not to descend into here-is-my-guitar-cock posturing. They do, however, have surprises up their sleeve, as the song disintegrates not in a wash of feedback but as a beautiful little solo piano theme, which itself goes on a little bit too long but is still an excellent way to close out an album that will break your speakers if you're not careful.

All in all, I think I'd be far more excited about this album were its antecedents not quite so obvious. There are moments when they break free of the formula, as on the snarling shoegaze/garage rocker "Beehiver II", but the portmanteau alone should tell you everything you need to know about why that one doesn't work. It's not good when the singer yells "Yeah! Ha Ha! Woo!" during the noise breakdown, as if he were ripping off a bitching solo right then, and I just don't believe him. Oddly enough, I think the album works best when it's about halfway between its two major influences, as on "Sapphire Eyes High", which combines the unstoppable stomp in the rhythm section with back-masked guitar solos for the first half of the song to create a singlualrly Velvety feel and then abruptly aboutfaces into MBV unintelligible layered vox and guitar smear, and then rockets back in the other direction, and so forth, until your ears have been pleasured every which way. And then at the end it lurches into something entirely other, an underwater lurching noisefest for parping feedback and distortion which almost alone among the band's work reminds me of nothing but Serena Maneesh. The whole thing keeps you on your toes and it's a reminder of why the central aesthetic idea upon which this band is founded is a really promising one.

I'm going to award this album a strong burn because Drain Cosmetics and Sapphire Eyes High are both so exceptionally good that they nearly make the album buyable on their own merits. I'm hoping that in the future we see more of that sort of thing out of this band, and less space-fill, jamming and *cough* homage.

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Sunn 0))): Black One

Aw shit. This again. You know, normally idiots (as far as music goes))) like excess: the more chord changes, the more time signatures, the more notes, the harder to play it is, the better it is. This is a mathematical constant to them. As the difficulty of the passage goes up, so goes the quality. This is why the Mars Volta exists. But Pitchfork has opened my eyes to a new kind of idiot: the kind that thinks the simpler the music, the dronier, the more uniform a piece of music is, the better. I imagine the ultimate piece of music would be a simple sine wave that modulates in volume over and over again like a calm, soothing, flourescent bulb. (Note to self...))) In fact, I bet these people like to sit in their rooms and listen to their computer hum, or a typewriter type. (Sadly, Johann Johannjohann has already used the latter.))) I bet they could write 1000-word essays about the wonders of their air conditioner noise, replete with references to zooming across the galaxy and accounts of how they acheived complete enlightenment of the human condition. But they've got to fork over $20 to someone to make it feel like art. This is why Sunn 0))) exists.

Beyond their name causing me to scan for three other parentheses to feel balanced, I am informed they are named after an amp company. This band is a bunch of "amp worshippers" apparently, and it confuses the hell out of me. They certainly get some fabulous tones - their distorted bass is one of the nicest bass distortions I've heard since OK Computer - but they are so metal that their lead guitar tone is the thin, weak, muddy distortion that you hear high school students blaring in the guitar store or at a local venue of some sort. Their guitar tone, unfortunately, is their strongest point.

The music, if you can call it that, consists mostly of guitar and bass guitar droning, occasional utterances by other instruments, and ultra-metal screaming. The resulting collage is basically complete garbage. Not because it is ear-splitting nor is it because it is of poor quality. No, it's because the music is entirely dull and unremarkable. Their guitar riffs are stolen directly from Mel Bay's Classic Black Metal Riffs Vol. 7 repeated over and over and over again, their "spooky" noises have been visited countless times upon countless times (and I mean that in the mathematical sense of "uncountable"))) by horror film music composers, and their screaming is entirely obvious to even the poorest student of the black metal arts. Independent Japanese goth bands are doing circles around Sunn 0))), coming up with more hardcore shit like every single day.

Even their calling card, their guitar tone, takes approximately zero talent and a lot of money. Sunn 0))) has essentially purchased themselves into the Pitchfork 2005 Top 50 list. All you really need is an nice old tube amp, and crank the fucker up as loud as it goes. I can imagine them in the studio tweaking and tweaking, imagining that they are getting subtle benefits out of the amp, listening with broken eardrums to the finer points of their noise, savoring it like a fine wine. But it would be bullshit. Even conceding this point, if they gave out Top 50 spots for technical excellence, John Vanderslice should be on there every year he puts out a CD.

But none of it is Sunn 0)))'s fault. You can't blame them any more than you could blame a wolf for killing a rabbit. It's just in their nature. These guys are fucking metal. It's their job to make dark sounding noises and then scream over them. They aren't bad at what they do (although it would be really hard be bad at what they do), and they aren't insulting like a Johann or Basinski. Those people attach real, honest meaning to their work when it is entirely devoid of any such quality. Those people are really hopeless narcissists: they find depth in their work when really they're just looking in the mirror. Sunn 0))) holds no such prentention. Sure, they're pretentious, but it's the metal kind of pretentious. You know, the kind with the dragons and paganism and shit about the universe and evil mysteries of the cosmos. (Actaully, metal heads are only a demon or two away from being hippies.) But there's a place for them to exist in this world. Just not on my Top 50 list.

See, Sunn 0))) fills a very specific niche: to be cranked up at full volume and piss off your parents after they've grounded you for staying out too late or going to the Gwar concert without their permission. Some bands are successful solely on their novelty. Wesley Willis and Anal Cunt fill a specific niche, but you don't put Anal fucking Cunt on your top 50 unless you are retarded. Bands like Sunn 0))) and Boris need to go on that "fun but embarassingly so" list. Contrary to what I said earlier, I did feel very insulted listening to this album, but it wasn't Sunn 0))) giving me the finger, it was Pitchfork. Buy this album if you own more than 4 metal shirts, or if dressing in a robe and performing an incantation sounds like your idea of fun. But for me, this album is so horribly lacking in skill and significance that you would be much better off to skip this album.

As an aside, I've come to this conclusion: Pitchfork does not know anything about music. Oh sure, they know what they like. And they listen to a lot of music. But they are complete laymen, with no idea about what constitutes "intricate", "clever", or "good". So I'm going to cease all Pitchfork complaining in all future reviews and simply review the album, because Pitchfork bashing is getting old.

OK, you'll have just read Stephen's review. I probably agree with most of it. Let me try to make a case for why this isn't the worst album we've reviewed yet.

Ignore the black metal throat screaming -- it's here as a sort of icing. Ignore the ridiculous song titles. Except "Cursed Realms (Of The Winterdemons)", which should make you lightly roll over in your mind the possibility that this whole thing is a joke that Pitchfork has fallen for hook, line and sinker. Ignore the goth boilerplate lyrics. Ignore the songwriting, which should be pretty easy since there isn't any. Imagine yourself standing in a goth club, face slick from the pig's blood that the opening band spat on you, the air a standing haze of tar and clove, feeling wave after wave of this shit splattering over your body and rearranging your molecules. And by this shit I mean turgid tarmac-gritty distortion, a sort of palpable black sludge. My brain likey the bass -- and this is basically just pure bass, textured like jackhammers or sea monsters or what have you. And then turn it up - way, way up - and close your eyes, and try to recapture that experience. Possibly by smoking a bunch of cloves and rubbing yourself down with meat. When it gets to the point of hurts so good, you will understand that despite the fact that no skill at all was employed in the making of this music it does have utility and thus does not deserve to be shelved with Basinski in the laughably pointless corner.

I think this album got on Pitchfork's list cause the metal fans in the room had seen these shows and couldn't express how nice it felt cause it's hard to record an experience like that. Then this album came out, and its production is sufficiently deep and growly that some modicum of the authentic Sunn 0))) experience is retained, and the people rejoiced. I believe that 95% of people would not particularly want to capture the authentic Sunn 0))) experience-- I think I would, but that's because my head is set up in such a way that these frequencies stroke my pleasure center and tinny cymbals make baby Jesus cry. There is no case to be made for this as art, as music in the arranged sense, as anything other than some people who really like making loud noises and who can afford the proper equipment jerking off. But at least it catches the attention. It's the sort of trick that can work once. And so, I dunno, I guess I'm glad Pitchfork pointed me to it?

But it's certainly not worth listening to more than once unless you get a lot more pleasure out of having your fluids oscillated than I do. Skip.

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Jamie Lidell: Multiply

Back in my high school days, there were these two "alternative" rock stations in Chicago. Q101 was the hipper, yuppier station, and Rock 103.5 was the hardcore, metal head station. One played Better than Ezra and the other played Pantera. Eventually, Q101 defeated the ancient metal gods, and somehow I happened to be driving around on the very night they switched formats. They close with Metallica's "Sad But True", and as the song ended, the new format took over. The new station was a motown station, and they kicked it off with "Get Ready". Eventually the station was shut down and replaced by KISS FM, owned by the almighty Clear Channel conglomorate (thanks Michael Powell) which began blaring 'nsync and Britney Boys or whatever pop music was assuring the destruction of our culture at the time (thanks Michael Powell). But the point is that station was like a breath of fresh air after hearing the same Green Day/Foo Fighters/whatever songs (though like them I did) over and over again. And I should admit this bias right up front: I love motown. Also, the station was better than just an oldies station, too, because the specific nature of the station forced it to play songs you don't hear all the time.

Jamie Lidell is very much like that station: refreshing, motown, and it's new. To be more precise, Jamie Lidell holds an interesting middle ground between motown, 70s soul, and modern R&B/funk like Jamiroquai. He doesn't make retro motown music, he makes motown (a good composer steals, not borrows, and all that). He does interesting production tricks using acapella sounds and clever layering of vocals. His harmonies and melodies are top notch. He's all over the pop spectrum, too. A song like "Multiply" solidly occupies Four Tops territory, but "A Little Bit More" is an acapella beatboxing song that wouldn't sound out of place with Justin Timberlake on it.

Many of you right now might be asking, but don't you hate pop music? And I'd say that's not entirely true. I hate bad pop music. Actually, more accurately, I hate dishonest pop music. I don't necessarily mean artists who don't write their own music (although most of the worst culprits are those people), I mean music that is either bereft of any soul or that is trying to emulate the former. I've developed what I like to call the "American cheese" test. See, I don't like American cheese for the most part. It has its place, like on greasy breakfast sandwiches. But American cheese has a very unique taste — specifically, while it contains enough cheese flavor to be recognized as cheese, it carries with it an electric sharpness. I don't mean sharp like cheddar cheese, I mean a sensation that goes beyond taste and makes your whole mouth vibrate not unlike chewing on aluminum foil with fillings. This is a taste we call "processed", and it's the price we pay for the alchemy of synthesizing cheese out of its component parts. Bad pop music has the same kind of taste, too, if you look for it. It's as if your senses are confused; it sounds like music, and it tastes like cheese, but something isn't quite right. It's the sense equivalent of being on a stopped bus next to one that is moving slowly. It's the price artists pay for songs that will appeal to everyone.

That being said, Jamie Lidell is pure gouda. And it's good that I've somehow gotten myself into a cheese metaphor, because now is the time in the review where I point out that for being a dead on copy of classic motown acts, Jamie Lidell is white. What's more is that he's not just white, he's fucking English. English white boys do not sound like this; English white boys are mozzerella. Or maybe white cheddar in the case of Sid Vicious. Anyway, I'm sure every single person ever to review this album has said the same thing about Lidell (minus the cheese), but let's be honest: it's the most fascinating thing about this record, and the music on the record is so good that I have to mention it.

For me, this record has the most replay value out of the four. It's also an album I recommend everyone to buy. I don't care if you hate this kind of music, put this on and listen until you do. Your groove will thank me.

Oh, this is just ridiculously good. It's like if Motown had a good, organic house DJ/producer to go with the Funk Brothers. It's stylistically diverse, weird, soulful, well-sung and occasionally goes right over the top into joyful speed jazz. Fiona Apple done right, with about twice as much funk grated on top.

Stylistic diversity is the name of the game here. There are songs on this album that could've come straight out of the seventies, and some that sound like they came out of a particularly avant-garde contemporary soul album, and some that are spliced together from a whole bunch of eras at once (the excellent "What's the Use".) There are tracks with a hip-hop bunch, like the slightly-too-simple vocal sample-driven "A Little Bit More". And then there's "Music Will Not Last", which belies its theme by resurrecting Smoky Robinson in a faithful and groovy stripped-down tribute to the Motown sound. And whoever they have playing bass on crazy speed-jazz-funk tracks like "Newme" gets a medal for being solid and deeply weird at the same time. Some experiments don't work quite as well-- "The City" is a chopped-up drum and bass moan that reminds me of nothing quite as much as Public Image Limited, although Lidell trades John Lydon's hysteria for a soulful intensity which isn't quite believable in its desperation. But points should be awarded nonetheless for the attempt, which sounds beautifully out of place on an album that's all about incongruities, experimentation, style blending and artistry. When smoky blues rubs shoulders with Talking Heads-y white funk, complete with Bernie Worrell organ madness, good things happen.

The more conservative tracks on the album (includinging the opener, "Yougotmeup", which sounds more Stingishly adult contemporary than anything else and gave me entirely the wrong idea to start with) don't please me as much. "This Time" is a slow-burning blues which is entirely impressive in its dedication to its subject matter, and motown piano fills thrown in -- my only objection to it is that it's an exercise in a genre I don't dig much, no complaints about the execution. That's the larger problem with this album... I don't know how often I'll listen to it, as beautifully crafted as it is, because first it's not the kind of thing I'd normally listen to and second digging out the best of Motown would work as an easy (and superior) substitute. But that's quibbling. This is obviously worth a buy, particularly if you're into this kind of music. The dude's a talent.

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