2004, 38-35 Morrissey, Johann Johannsson, Excepter and Mirah

Johann Johannsson
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Morrissey: You Are the Quarry

With the Internet going completely mainstream, it seems that a new phenomenon is occuring: everyone is becoming a complete geek. People are posting the weirdest shit on Youtube, posting blogs and shit on Myspace, hell, normal people are talking about the Internet in real life! It's completely altered our landscape: if you don't have a web page, don't expect your corporation to be successful; you are expected to understand e-mail to function in an office. But one of the areas it has altered the most is our humor. The media is even starting to catch onto popular humor on the Internet. The thing about Internet humor is that it is a completely self-aware beast, heaping irony on top of irony until the tubes that comprise it collapse. Last week, a movie named "Snakes On A Plane" hit the box office. This movie, as a friend of mine put it, was a cult classic before it was even released. This is because of a single post placed on the Internet that poked fun at its particularly silly title. This post was passed around, and with some magical Internet "meme" dust ("meme" is a horribly abused word that is used on the Internet to mean "passed by word-of-mouth") it became Popular, spawning all sorts of wacky Internet Jokes With Photoshops, e.g. "Snape's on a Plane" or the incredibly clever "Planes on a Snake." Pretty soon everyone came up with their own awesome "Snakes On A Plane" joke or were content enough just to repeat the Samuel L. Jackson line. Eventually, it reached true Internet Humor status, which is the endless feedback loop where people think something is funny, and then people make fun of the people who make the joke, and then people make fun of them, then it's actually funny again, and the cycle repeats again.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon by any stretch. This, as far as I can tell, began in the 60s with the creation of the Batman TV show. I'm sure you can find the picture of Batman running with a huge petard somewhere. They called this kind of thing "camp." Now, did the Internet make camp more popular? It's very possible: camp requires a kind of bizarre self-aware irony, and the Internet is the perfect place for it. It's popped up in other places too, even in the music industry. Wesley Willis (God rest his soul) was an amazing example of such a phenomenon. I still think Wesley Willis is occasionally funny.

But there's the rub: this kind of shit gets old quickly. Popularization also kills it really quickly. Something about it is much better when it's esoteric. It also isn't something you should really spend your money on and it's certainly not something that belongs on a Top 50 Albums of the Year list.

When I saw this on the Top 50, I thought, "Morrissey?? Morrissey sucks last I heard." I used to be in a band that had a lead singer who supposedly sounded like Morrissey. But trust me, we were way better. And if you haven't heard Morrissey, this album basically sounds like an over-produced middle-of-the-road pop rock. It's so bland that it's really difficult to place. What I imagine is that this album sounds like the local college bar band near you that paid the money to go to a professional studio. But not the jam/glam/butt rock you get from a lot of bar bands. This is the local band made up of college students who do original material but like to mix it up with a few ironic covers of Backstreet Boys ('cause they're so clever). Their influences are Radiohead, Alanis Morrisette, The Cure, Daniel Powter, and uh, Morrissey.

As soon as I started the album I started laughing hysterically. This? This has got to be a joke. The only way I can think that this ended up on the list was that it was some kind of bizarre self-aware humor. It starts with the line: "America...your head is too big" and goes on to chastize us by reminding us that "President is never black, female or gay, and until that day, you've got nothing to say to me." Do people in Estonia really say "You big fat pig...you big fat pig?" The next song is an incredibly silly song called "Irish Blood, English Heart" with similarly clunky lyrics that talk about some crap about England and Oliver Cromwell. The next song, "I Have Forgiven Jesus," shows his tender side by forgiving Jesus for giving him urges he cannot act upon. "Do you hate me, Jesus?" he asks. Incidentally. I stepped in gum this morning because I was laughing so hard at this song. Why did you do that, Morrissey? Do you hate me? Do you hate me, Morrissey?? I'm sure you'll be glad to know that I have forgiven Morrissey.

Unfortunately, the entire theme of this review only counts toward the first three songs of the album. The rest are a bunch of mediocre overproduced bunch of crappy Morrissey songs. Skip it, but damn, download those first three tracks because they are funny as hell.

So what we got here is a well-produced if unspectacular pop album with a little bit of cool electronic skittering in the beat, restrained strings, unapologetic hooks, big soppy choruses. Minus a little cheesy keyboard here and there you could hear these tracks on the radio behind Paris Hilton. Normally this kind of stuff would bore me off my ass unless I was dancing along to it in somebody's kitchen, with everyone trying to pretend they're being ironic but really just digging the body moves -- but nobody is ironic with the Moz.

Morrissey with the fun Serious Singer reverb on his voice, crooning into the mic. He has about twice the vocal range these days that he did when he was with the Smiths, and thank god, because if he stuck to his favorite three notes like he did back in the day this album would be entirely unbearable. As it is it verges close on syrupy ballads like "Come Back To Camden." This album requires commitment from the listener; if you don't come with him every step of the way, you're going to end up cracking up and/or hitting your stereo to make it stop. But if you're willing to surrender to Morrissey (and I mean that in the most erotic way possible) you'll probably have an excellent time as he piles on the falsetto and then the string swells and then the Lou Reed pop histrionics.

Of course the lyrics are the draw here. Morrissey say "America gave us the hamburger; you know where you can shove your hamburger." He has a song called "I Have Forgiven Jesus". And so forth. I have no idea how he manages to take the most blatantly adolescent ideas and make them seem world-weary and sophisticated, but it's an ability he's always had, and he uses it to good effect here. It's gotta be that voice. There is such a thing as a Morrissey Mood, in which he is the only one who can speak to you -- an entire generation of British teenagers grew up in the 80s knowing that feeling all too well -- and he certainly hasn't lost the touch.

So this isn't a bad Morrissey album (thank god), and the rocking numbers rock in a genteel radio-friendly way, and the ballads are funny. So burn it for your Morrissey moods, and for story-songs like "First Of The Gang To Die", which is great and reminds me of the Decemberists of all people.

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Johann Johannsson: Virulegu forsetar

I think one of the greatest synth players of our time has to be the bass synth player on Johann Johannsson's Virulegu forsetar. The piece is a grueling and demanding one, because it focuses almost exclusively on his interpretation of it. The majority of the album rests on his shoulders, and he has to maintain the discipline to hold the same note, once every movement, each of which are no shorter than 14 minutes each.

This album is basically four movements of slow, majestic brass with underlying bass synth. It sounds good on paper, but there are two very basic problems with this album:

  1. The word "movement" is a misnomer. The music does not move anywhere; in fact, the four movements are basically identical.
  2. The movements are not identical, but they play the exact same chords over and over again, broken up by the aforementioned synth virtuoso. Not the same chord progression, basically exactly the same notes, but in different inversions.
What is wrong with Pitchfork? This is even worse than Max Richter's Blue Notebooks; at least that was mediocre and a little bit interesting. Each track is 14 minutes of a pedal bass note underneath a simplistic harmony progression that is played with a majestic tone that is supposed to be profound but ends up sounding like a complete amateur's idea of "profound" - kind of like the classical version of goth poetry.

What it basically boils down to is that this is a single progression dragged out to an entire hour. Anyone could have written this. "Yeah," Johann says, "but guess who did write it? Me, baby, me." I'll grant that, yes, Cage was clever for being the first person to make a deal out of composing rests (technically Tacets). It doesn't help that he did the Artist backpedal ("oh you see, there's noise in the audience, and outside, and I wanted to say that there is noise everywhere" - oh, you're such a genius), but I digress. The problem with this album is that this song has been written before by any college student who has taken an introductory course in music composition. Hell, we did something like this in high school band class.

This music is good for nothing except sappy movie soundtracks and falling asleep too - and I'm pretty sure it's only mediocre for that purpose too. Skip this album and buy yourself something like Holst instead.

This fails as music. Freakin' David Byrne's orchestral outing, which was basically an excuse for him to make loud vowel sounds over a string section, was more interesting than this. It might actually have been improved by the guy mowing his lawn across the street while I listened to it.

What we have here is an hour of low synth drones with stately Holst-esque brass fanfare played over it here and there. There are occasionally tiny bits of laptop scratching and teeny, teeny little wind chimes. If I was a fan of ambient music I might get off on the way the bass synth is textured ever so subtly -- how it gets ripply and thundery and then smooth and easy, how it rides and falls -- but, y'know, no. I might dig the way the themes which are introduced hesitantly in the first movement become stronger and reinforce themselves as the piece goes on, how the entire album has a trajectory and a purpose. But I don't!

I will admit that by the third movement the bass synth is volcanic and burbles in a way that I find intensely pleasing, but you have to wade through a lot of offensively noble horns to get there, and then Mr. Johannsson does the absolutely unforgivable: he introduces the Single Extremely High-Pitched Synth Whine, which stays in the piece for goddamn minutes on end and made me want to throw my laptop out the window.

By the time I'd finished wading through it I think he'd have to have included a surprise filthy disco break at the end of the piece to get me back on his side. Instead he gave me an intensely anticlimactic gradual decrescendo followed by several minutes of complete silence. Skip.

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Excepter: KA

This album is electronic ambience that falls in the "paranoia" category if there was one. Maybe there is. It also falls in the "spooky Halloween haunted house" genre as well. Basically, it's Music for Zombies.

The first song, "Vacation" (I seriously doubt any real meaning is behind the song titles), is a track based on a barely audible soft drum beat mixed with a strange chanting sample - it sounds like a normal woman chanting in a church but then some drunk homeless guy stumbles in and starts attempting to mumble along. It is interspersed with several kinds of percussion and Space Invader electronic sounds. It's also here that we first the album's most overused trick, playing with the pan controls:

He must have spent hours on Pro Tools getting those pan zigzags just right. Or maybe electronica people have some tool that automates this process for them. Either way it's like a kid playing with a new toy. You gotta use that sucker on everything. The first two tracks on the album are actually the longest, which is surprising. But they do definitely impart a kind of surreal mood, which is the point of this kind of music. It floats between this dark, evil, satanic kind of mood (remember, Music for Zombies) and this surreally happy kind of feeling that is enjoyable to listen to for a time. That's the album's biggest strength and it's biggest weakness - it's for too long for me to want to listen to the whole thing, but the music doesn't work unless it is that long.

The other problem is that I can't tell if this is a concerted effort or just the result of months of this guy fucking around in his home studio. I also wonder if those two things are truly mutally exclusive. For example, when I hear some guy wailing some song out of tune on "See Your Son" I wonder if it's someone just messing around or if he's trying to be creepy. "Give Me The Cave" sounds to my nerdy ears like an ode to the local arcade - it sounds like most of the sounds on here are sampled from them. For example, the Mario "you can't smash this brick with your head" sound makes an appearance here. (technical flaw; mario smashes bricks with his fist.) Also sampled are what sound like bowling pins and ticket-game winning noises.

But the album succeeds at its goal, which I have now decided is sounding like Music for Zombies - every track is filled with confusion, uneasiness, and the feel of flies buzzing around the stink of death. Also brains. I just don't know if that is a serious accomplishment or not - does this album really take talent? I'm not convinced of that, so I think you should skip it, unless you are into ambient electronic stuff or you want some music to scare the shit out of kids who show up at your house.

Excepter is part of the New York scene that includes Gang Gang Dance (who I love), Animal Collective (who I love) and Black Dice (who keep getting recommended to me.) So I went in this one with high hopes and was promptly ill.

This is for the most part annoying, formless shit, mixed in high headphone-killing style where you turn your gear all the way up to catch the faint drones in the back and then get your eardrums perforated by a snare patch turned up to 11. Tracks like "Be Beyond Me" drip with intentional distortion which prevents you from getting into what flow there is by giving you the vague but unshakeable feeling that your speakers are melting. My problem with this stuff isn't that formless whining over repetitive drones is by its very nature annoying and uninteresting -- it's that I've heard other bands in the scene do the same thing so much better. Excepter is like a neutered Gang Gang Dance -- all the weird, but no beat, no hook, no bass, no fun. I get the feeling that if I bought myself a Korg I could make the same noise just as well, if not better.

A memo to bands like this, as long as I'm on the subject. If your music is improvised, or sounds improvised, do live recordings -- it captures the vibe and the creative energy far better than layering stuff in the studio. And if this wasn't improvised, it might as well have been.

The album picks up a good three quarters of the way through with "Give Me The Cave", a propulsively weird song that sounds like a brain-damaged jazz drummer being accompanied by a maniac with a drum machine and a dying robot crawling up a flight of stairs. It builds and builds and is gradually swallowed by distortion -- but the first four minutes, hey. And the last bits, which add in noises that sound like they came from a whale's gastrointestinal tract. But the problem with this album is that half the songs are over eight minutes, and they don't have enough in them to sustain that kind of length. Moaning and fuzz and nothingness.

Skip it and buy GGD's "Hillulah" EP, which is similar but live and rockin'.

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Mirah: C'mon Miracle

After listening to Morrissey and Johann, this album really does seem like a miracle, which may bias my review of it some. This album is an acoustic girl singer/songwriter set of songs that actually doesn't suffer from a dragging pace or super-girl-power. The album has some seriously awesome production. It has (at risk of using a cliche) a really lo-fi sound, but I don't mean what people usually mean - that is, it doesn't sound like shit.

The vocals and occasionally drums come through with great fidelity on many of the tracks, but in some parts the drums are overdriven, have the midrange sucked out of them, or sounds like some detuned old kit in a barn somewhere; the guitar sometimes sounds like an old classical guitar you found in your mom's closet; and the strings in some songs don't sound the same old tired string quartet found in most comercially successful rock bands who have dreams of being ambitious. All of the sounds sound really good on the album, too, and give it a very soft and almost feminine quality.

The songs themselves are pretty good. The one flaw of the album is that I wish the songs were catchier, but despite this, it is still a pleasure to listen too. You'll find yourself humming the bits 5 minutes after the song ends, but not so much 5 days afterward. This quality really speaks to Mirah's skill as a vocalist and ear for composition. It makes things more immediate, too, and maybe this works out the best for the style: like you are living in the moment.

It also spans a lot of ground for what might usually a very limited musical vocabulary. It moves from the opener, "Nobody Has To Stay", a song with a beatifully arranged string section along with a finger-picked classical guitar that sounds almost like pizzicato strings, to "Jerusalem", which is a classic Elliot Smith-style tune, to "The Light" a distorted-bass-and-drums heavy piece, all within the first 3 songs. It also has a country-western-inspired piece called "The Dogs of B.A", which features a spoken Spanish story in the bridge. "Struggle" is the catchiest tune on the album, and is stripped down to just voice, a guitar, and drums (OK, a few seconds of synth thrown in). "You've Gone Away Enough" is also minimalistic, but focuses most on the lyrics and is easily the most interesting set of lyrics to listen to on the album.

This album is good, well produced, fun to listen to, and full of style - and not the annoying kind you would expect from the artist description. Buy it if you've got the time.

Oh thank god.

I will come right and say that I am biased here for two reasons: first, Mirah is from my hometown of Portland, the most Happening Place on Earth; and second, she's intensely beautiful. There is a type in this part of the world, the vaguely earth-mothery curvy hipster chick who probably went to Evergreen college, plays guitar, and basically lives in a pink cloud of bohemian grace that makes the eyes water and the face burn. Mirah is the first pressing from that mold.

Oh yeah-- her music. Mirah is in fact from Evergreen and her stuff is released by K records, which tells you right off that what production there is is going to be intensely indie for the most part, with a naturalistic feeling, some room noise, a little bit of clever multitracking here and there, warm fuzzy guitar sounds, cool old keys. Some songs, like "The Light", feature the squishy, organic electronica that Portland specializes in mixed way back in the mix, which is delightful. Her stuff is very polished by K standards and the songs here are all presented well, with arrangements that don't distract from the craftsmanship. Still, the best cuts on the album are the simplest, where it's just her and her guitar singing directly to me. I swear. Like on "You've Gone Away Enough" -- I have gone away enough. Thanks, Mirah!

The songs on C'mon Miracle are less erotic, less whimsical, and considerably more spiritual than much of her earlier work, and as much as I miss her asking an unnamed someone to tie her to the murphy bed (can't even pretend she's singing directly to me there, sadly) the greater skill and maturity that informs this stuff is obvious. A song like "Look Up!", which with its amazing swelling chorus is an example of how to use tremendous amounts of distortion properly, is impressive enough; but when it's followed by the beautiful, minimal autoharp and horns of "We're Both So Sorry", which is as intensely personal as the song before was cathartic and universal... well, we're in the presence of an artist, folks.

If the album has a weakness, it's that it does drift sometimes. Mirah has a habit of coasting on her talent, and you can get distracted when she gets quiet, and she doesn't always feel the need to include a hook. But it's her strongest work yet, and the production is awesome, and the songs are great. So buy it, dumbass.

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