2005, 46-43 Fiona Apple, M83, Vashti Bunyan and Spoon

Fiona Apple
Vashti Bunyan
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Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine (Jon Brion Version)

This album is one of those with a story about it that's probably bigger than the album itself. There's also been a surprising amount of misinformation about it as well: the typical telling goes that she completed the album and Sony hated it, they wouldn't release it, they delayed releasing it, they said there wasn't a single (a Tom Petty influence?), etc. But the truth of the matter seems to be that Apple herself, who isn't known for playing with all 52 cards (she in fact makes claims to the contrary on the album), stopped the album from being released because she wasn't happy with it. Even that fact, however, seems difficult to ascertain - it seems the record company DID hate it too. Either way, it's a great story for the aspiring music hipster - the pop star releases an amazing album that's so out there that the suits can't stomach it and try to block it. It's a very romantic notion; kind of a Liz Phair in reverse.

Despite all this nonsense, the music itself is strong enough that you can just ignore all that crap. The album itself seems to define exactly what Fiona Apple is - sultry jazz-influenced singer with a feminine edge that's not feminist like Ani DiFranco or "empowering" like Tori Amos; rather it's realistic, unpretentious, and unpronounced. The music is mostly the typical piano, bass, and drums with the occasional strings, but other formulas show up that you don't see very often in rock anymore: the Burt Bacharach-style horns, the playful clarinet, honky-tonk style rhythms, late era-Beatles string sections and even a modern showtunes style (similar to Sondheim), cramming as much verse into a single space as possible.

The album starts off with "Better Version of Me", which like I said above is everything you'd expect out of Fiona Apple, with a creeping piano line and a heavily processed organ synth background. It's immediately engaging, and she sounds almost like a beat poet spitting out short rhyming lines. (I should note that when I listened to this the first time, somehow an alternate version of the song ended up on my playlist immediately after this song, making the song into a quine.) The next song "Extraordinary Machine" combines a 60s wind ensemble style with musical theatre, and by this point in the record you get the feeling that everything coming out of your speakers is going to be interesting at the very least.

It also should be said that Apple puts on a hell of a performance. She doesn't hold back on her vocals, and plays the piano with a great deal of passion - on "Not About Love" espeically (she smacks the piano in rhythm during the huge but sparse chorus). The negative side to the album, though is a certain degree of monotony throught the album. The lyrics tread over the same ground in a way that is unvaried, as she sings about painful, angry or ambiguous feelings about love. The lyrics also seldom offer anything singular for listeners to pick out (the exception is the aforementioned "Extraordinary Machine").

Despite those faults, however, this is a very strong album that is a great deal of fun to listen to, even if you aren't going to be singing along with it a great deal. I say buy it simply for having such incredible amounts of style.

The now-forgotten internet squawk-fest that surrounded the release of this album largely passed me by. For those (like me) who weren't really paying attention, the skinny is that Fiona started recording the album with dude A, and then decided to rerecord large chunks of it with dude B. People at the time screamed that she'd been pushed by her label to seek out a more consumer-friendly approach, and when the version with dude A was leaked they proclaimed it far superior to the dumbed-down commercial tripe that dude B was pushing, despite the fact that Fiona herself liked dude B's stuff better. Pitchfork has chosen to include dude A's version on their list, making yet another case where I can't reasonably give a buy rating cause it ain't for sale at any price, and my critical judgment is weakened anyway by the thought of someone who, having recorded nearly a full album, with all the work and expense that requires (some of these tracks feature freakin' orchestral accompaniment), has the resources to just chuck it and start again. If I had your budget, lady, my band would be on the radio right now. And my vocals would sound like Britney's.

Anyway. Fiona Apple is a chanteuse both jazzy and soulful, and a few of her songs are produced and scored here with extraordinary creativity and aplomb. If the subject matter of her songs is a bit on the predictable side, the delivery (in terms of songwriting, inflection, you name it) is quite unique and quite wonderful. It's ultra-dramatic in a winking, cabaret-style way, and the best songs on here are like show-stopping numbers from the kind of quality musical nobody seems capable of writing anymore. "Not About Love", elastic and expressive and clever and diva-tastic, is a textbook example of how to use a string section effectively (apparently you can do things with a violin besides big reverb-drenched whole notes! Somebody shoulda told Mr. M83...) It happens to be a great song, too, shrewdly constructed, intelligent, sly. Now if only every other song on the album was up to that standard... and if you think you're tired of reading that phrase, think of how tired I am of writing it....

I am inclined to think that many of the songs in the pod I'm currently listening to weren't entirely finished or mixed at the point of their release, because this album comes off as hugely frontloaded, and what's the point of frontloading a bootleg? The first five songs on the tracklist are all pretty wonderful, using nontraditional instrumentation and creative scoring to great effect. (I am excluding here the version of "Better Version Of Me" marked "version 4". The version marked "alternate" is the better version. Can you see why reviewing something like this is headache-inducing?) But the production gets more conservative and more repetitive as the album progresses, with only a few exceptions. Much of this might perhaps be blamed on the songwriting, which having exhausted its initial stylistic novelty begins to feel samey. But hey, the good stuff is really pretty darn good, filled with juddering start-stops, tension and attitude. And the sort of bass drum hits that go right to your ass if you're feeling swanky.

Still, on the whole, I'm not overwhelmed and the sheer silliness surrounding this album's inclusion on the list makes me tired. Let's call it a burn and have done.

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M83: Before the Dawn Heals Us

The 80s!

For a lot of you, that's all I need to say. You're already enthralled. Everyone old enough to drink actually remembers the 80s, and those younger than that probably remember the 80s, too. We all look at the 80s with nostalgia so powerful that we invent unwarranted nostalgia for other decades because we are nostalgic for 80s nostalgia. The Japanese have a great word for it, natsukashii, but maybe it's just great because the Japanese language allows you to simply say that word (and only that word) when something makes you nostalgic. Similarly, all one needs to do is mention something iconic from the 80s, and you're guaranteed to have the ears of the majority of people listening. I may even use this device somewhere in this review.

M83, fittingly, sounds like it comes from around 1983. Its music similar to that era's prog rock (evoking such bands as Tangerine Dream), but far more simpler, and with vocals that sound something like The Cure at times. It's almost as if three major 80s elements - punk, new wave, and prog rock - combined to form a single band. A "supergroup", if you will. When I listen to the album, I feel like I've been transported to the land of 80s movie soundtracks. I see a post-apocalyptic desert world, or maybe some barbarian smiting a dragon on some ancient Earth B-movie set somewhere. Or maybe flying Falcor as I rush to protect the world from the Nothing. The keyboard patches swell and hold majestic chords in counterpoint to cheesy string synth and even cheesier choir synths as someone softly sings a simple melody over them. What I'm trying to get at is that this band set out to recreate the feeling they got when they thought about the 80s and completely and utterly succeeded.

Mind you, I'm not saying that this sounds like anything that was necessarily around in the 80s, but instead it's just vaguely reminiscent. The other things is that a band can have as much style as it wants, but it still all hinges upon the music itself. The opening track, "Don't Save Us From The Flames" is a high speed mix of synth, falsetto voices and the Toms Of Doom, and it's quite catchy for not containing a whole lot of melody. The next few songs, however, tread in the same dreary repeatative soft-and-pretty zone of boredom. The song only offers a couple high points: the aforementioned opening track, "Teen Angst", which is along the same lines as that song. Musically, the rest of the album continues along fairly predictable lines but never becomes interesting enough for me to want to stop and listen to it. The lowest point musically comes on "Can't Stop", which sounds like 80s top 40 radio at its worst.

The real unfortunate side to this album is the spoken parts. In a couple places on this album, a woman (who may have come from the 80s movie set I mentioned) does some very unnecessary spoken word bits. The first, which I assume is engineered to sound like an 80s movie quote, is forgivable, but only because it's so short. The next, at about 3/4 of the way through the album comes on "Car Chase Terror!" which is an audio recording that is half 80s horror movie, half Blair Witch, and all badly acted. I suppose the cheesiness is supposed to be endearing, but in this case it's so bad it's impossible to like.

Between the bad acting and lack of inspiring songs, skip this album. However, it's got such style that I say it wouldn't hurt you to spend a CD-R and burn it if you were feeling in the mood. However, I honestly can't see any sane person buying this thing.

I hesitate to say this, cause the competition has been pretty darn stiff, with many worthwhile contenders throughout this noble project of ours, but this album may be the worst thing we've yet encountered.

M83 were at one point two frenchmen, one a multi-instrumentalist with a fetish for big swelling eighties-movie-soundtrack grandiosity and cheesy synths and the other a fairly wicked beatmaker and loop-chopper. Together they produced an album which was not perhaps an item for all occasions but which brought adjectives like "majestic" and "triumphal" to mind, and had the power (at least in my case) to increase one's stamina to Rocky Balboa levels. Pretty much the perfect soundtrack for biking up rain-slick mountains or scaling cliffs. Then the beatmaker left, leaving the other dude to indulge himself. The beats are replaced by Big Eighties Drums, the synth voices and samples by breathy girls and boys with mushy accents and questionable English (a species I have grown to loathe over the course of this project), structure and crescendo by sprawl, and implied heights of passionate emotion by big, wet, steaming, unsubtle, manipulative schlock-turds. It starts out mediocre and gets steadily worse until we reach the likes of "Teen Angst", which is like Enya turned up to 160 BPM (the lyrics, by the way, of that song: "teen angst", repeated over and over and over again.) This is new-age music for hipsters. Criminal. Mr. M83 tops it easily with "Safe", though, which is lifted mostly from Vivaldi's "Spring" and features an echoey breathy voice expressing sentiments so wet that a sponge, sitting on the bottom of the ocean during a particularly vicious rainstorm whilst being pissed on by a passing shark, would say, "damn, that's pretty wet." If he were listening. And could speak english.

I was at this point convinced that things couldn't get any worse and had dedicated myself to at least getting through one complete listen of the album so I could lambast it properly. Then I hit "Car Chase Terror!", which consists of an astonishingly cheesy and completely incongruous instrumental (largely indistinguishable from all the other instrumentals on this album, all of which basically use the same chord progression and mega-quick beats which slightly different lame string and keyboard patches) being talked over by a soap-opera grade actress delivering a bewildering and poorly-written monologue, the gist of which is that she's frightened-- I can't tell you any more than that because at a minute and a half in I gave up. If you can get through that track without suffering internal bleeding you're a stronger man than I. And then... well. I think if I tell you that track 14 is called "A Guitar And A Heart" you can put together the clues from the rest of this review and hear the ensuing Karate Kid soundtrack wankery in the theatre of your imagination.

As a tribute to Stephen Colbert and to celebrate the midterm election results I hereby introduce a new category for this album and award it a should never have existed.

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Vashti Bunyan: Lookaftering

Just the name of this album makes me think I am in for some real hippie bullshit. "Lookaftering" is the kind of word only some vegan in a coffee shop (or maybe Ben Gibbard) could come up with. Luckily, I'll have you know, it wasn't that bad. In fact, it's not really much of anything. In fact, it really feels like the CD was being sold in that very coffee shop. Okay, to be fair, that's not quite true - there is an extraordinary amount of professionalism on this CD; something you do not see everyday from artists. This album, however, has probably inspired thousands of 40-year old Bohemians to create incredibly similar works, however.

Lookaftering is basically an Enya singer/songwriter album. It's got guitar store style acoustic fingerpicking, simple flute parts, occasional mandolins or violins, a few piano songs, and an airy, beautiful female voice that sings so softly that you have to listen pretty closely to tell that she's singing at all. The result is very beautifuly and pretty predictable - but it's probably the perfect album for this genre. The arrangement of the instruments is impeccable, and there's a great deal of depth to it. For example, on "Against The Sky", there's a faint feedback or resonance that sounds like (and partly fills in for) a flute part. There's a noisy, quickly vibrating harpischord like noise on "Turning Back" that ushers in a particular section now and again - it fills the role that a bouzouki or fast-picked mandolin might play, but it instead adds an ethereal quality to the music and the harsh frequencies that are amplified on the recording complement the oboe and piano quite well. The album is full of excellent instrumentation and quality engineering.

The only thing that stops me from recommending this album wholeheartedly is that I have no desire to listen to the darn thing. Every song, while done well, seems simply a variation on the last. Her vocal lines are practically identical on each song, and as a result it doesn't seem like any real effort has gone into them. Not only that, but every song is the same tempo. Seriously, no song on this album is more than a few beats per minute different from another. Similarly, the mood of the songs ranges from "sadly sweet" to "sweetly sad."

So basically, burn it and hand it out to your friends down at the coffee shop or guitar store, who will absolutely love it and probably form a songwriter's guild to write and record CDs that sound just like it. As a musician, I totally and unironically encourage this, though - just make sure to add some variation to it.

I liked this album. Then again I listened to it right after Before The Dawn Heals Us, and I think I was so starved for genuine emotion at that point that this sucker opened up like a feast before me. Also, it kinda sounds like the soundtrack from Haibane Renmei, and I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

Vashti Bunyan has a weird history-- she made a psychedelic folk album in the 70s which slotted comfortably in the Undiscovered Classic category, where the actual quality of the album becomes secondary to the satisfaction derived from its obscurity. Then she went away for a while, until the fine fellows of the Animal Collective decided they'd like to do an EP with her, and behold -- it's the comeback trail. Given that CV it's remarkable that this album is as good as it is. This is folk music, lushly produced with flutes and strings and the occasional recorder swirling around soft-fingerpicked acoustic guitar, sort of like the Espers but with more songwriting muscle, variety and lyrical content behind it. Bunyan's voice takes a little getting used to, though, and some of the tracks here (including the opener, unfortunately) are sweet in construction and production to the point of cloyingness. Given the crowd that she's hanging out with it seems a shame that Bunyan didn't choose a more daring style of production, with less of the smooth and buttery and more of the organic. Whoever recorded Devendra Banhart's 2005 album might've worked wonders with this material; even though Bunyan isn't as talented a guitarist or a singer as Devendra, surely there are ways to deal with that other than smothering it in layers of sweetness. That's the point of indie rock, surely?

As it is this album's presence on the Pitchfork list is incongruous at best and is yet another example of an album's backstory landing it in a position that might've been filled by many other similar artists who didn't happen to have the hip credentials of the moment. I suppose her voice is strange enough to get her indie points, breathy and almost flutelike, pitch-accurate but oddly uninflected. And then there are little touches like the vintage-as-hell keyboard that kicks off "If I Were" before it's swallowed by dual harpists closing in from the left and right sides of the audio landscape. (This album is worth checking out for that effect alone, really.) "If I Were" is a pretty darn beautiful song, anyhow, simple and touching slow-waltz renaissance pastiche. There are a bunch of songs like that on here -- good melodies with good lyrics not overwhelmed by the production, like "Hidden", which is wistful and pensive and honest and gets extra points for use of an entire recorder quartet. I just wish that the album itself had been constructed more thoughtfully (on an album this short, do we really need to close with a stripped-down and hummed version of the third track? Mightn't it have been better to just use this version in the first place?) And it would've been really helpful to have the production reigned in on some tracks, as on "Feet Of Clay", where not even recorders can save the track from sinking under the weight of its own sweetness. It's sad that on an album like this, where the material is so deeply felt and has been simmering for so long, questionable calls from the producer can make so big a difference. Were the strings easier to swallow and the sugar less sweet I could see buying this, but as it is, it's a sometimes food (what we in the business call a burn.)

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Spoon: Gimme Fiction

If there's anything I've learned from writing reviews, it's just how much a band's style matters. It's a well known and oft mentioned fact that certain bands are able to develop a very unique style, so I'm going to be cliche here and mention that Spoon is in fact one of those bands. Spoon is an old school rock-and-roll band, and by "old school" I mean simply that they have a great deal of "roll" mixed in with their "rock" compared to most modern bands. At its core is a dark 70s rock piano and Britt Daniel's identifiable raspy vocals. If you were to try to squeeze them in a top 40 radio lineup, they would be filed somewhere in between Jet and Franz Ferdinand, but perpendicular to that axis they'd be sitting closer to the classic rock station.

Gimme Fiction is a record that is definitive but at the same time has a lot of variation. "My Mathematical Mind" is typical piano-driven, dark Spoon, and "I Turn My Camera On" tends towards funk. This kind of variation is rather expected from Spoon, though, which shows their diversity as a band. This album has a lot of tracks, and goes all sorts of places, from a slow, bouncy "I Summon You" to the drumless, piano-recital feel of "Carryout Kids", which features some kind of motivational speaker sample. However (and this is what's always bugged me about Spoon), very few songs stand out, and the ones that do feel like they are carrying some kind of sludge over the whole thing. If it's the singer's voice or the chords that Spoon tends to pick, I'm not sure, but they remind me of Franz Ferdinand in that I can't ever listen to them for very long stretches. Not too many songs stand out for me, but this just could be my taste talking. The production is excellent, and Daniel can find interesting things to sing about, but it somehow fails to inspire me in any way. "I Summon You" is probably the album's best track; a nice shuffly acoustic number that you can dance too. It's also telling that I can't really find a poor song on the tracklist.

Usually it's a good sign that my reason for not liking a band is purely in taste when I find it very difficult to write a review about them, and such is the case with Spoon. So I'm going to go ahead and assign this a flexible burn-plus kind of deal. You should definitely buy it if you liked previous Spoon releases or you have always felt that rock just needed more roll.

Spoon is a band blessed with panache -- they swagger, buoyed up by classic riffs and rhythms, flawlessly minimal production and a vocalist blessed with an accent from the Land of Cool (halfway between Liverpool and Detroit, as the crow flies; nowhere near Texas, where Britt Daniel is actually from.) It's frustrating given all this that they have a tendency to produce albums which are merely OK, a few great songs surrounded by underwritten material which coasts on production tricks or sheer style. This collection is no exception, which is particularly unfortunate given that their last release, "Kill The Moonlight", was uncharacteristically tight and weakness-free. On Gimme Fiction the band occasionally darts off in unexpected stylistic directions but on the whole it's an underwhelming and familiar-sounding record.

The sound of Spoon is old-school, minimal, british-inflected rock with some twisty interesting chords thrown in, constructed of sharp and beautifully-recorded guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. One thinks of the Beatles and the Stones and...y'know...that whole crowd, the side of the british invasion who were more interested in song structure and pop sensibility than concept and weighty themes and interminable solos. You get a riff -- it repeats -- little squirrely production tricks weave in and out -- the lyrics are largely cool-sounding and meaningless, quoting old songs just like the music (he mentions at least twice that he's looking through me.) Some songs sound kind of like Dylan and the Band ("Sister Jack" -- do I smell another classic rock reference there?), some sound oddly like the New Pornographers, which probably means they sound like all the people A.C. Newman is ripping off with whom I am shamefully unfamiliar ("I Summon You.") The song here that everyone was raving over when it came out is the black-leather-and-sweat falsetto disco strut "I Turn My Camera On", which as far as I can tell is notable only because of the concept -- Spoon does a Bee-Gees pastiche and gays it up a little. Cool. The song isn't really worth listening to more than once, through.

The thing that made Kill The Moonlight such a great album was that it took an already very crisp sound and cut it down to its bones, leaving bits which other bands would fill with guitar strumming or drum fills stark and empty. This brought their great room reverb stuff out and made for quick, minimal songs which dropped in, punched you in the face with their sheer cool and then departed. Daniel has gotten a little more indulgent with this album, and the white space has as a general matter been filled with noise. On those occasions where he takes it all the way and provides a sort of loping wall of sound, as on the three-four stomper "My Mathematical Mind", this works in its own way -- but for the most part the album feels caught between concepts, and the songwriting just ain't there much. The two longest songs on the album, "Mathematical Mind" and "Was It You?", make an interesting pair -- they exemplify Spoon's two different approaches, the maximal and the minimal -- they're both extremely repetitive but feature a central riff awesome enough to keep my attention, particularly the latter -- and they're my favorite songs on here. The lesson to be drawn here is that this band is at its best when it explores what makes it unique. A little more quality control and a little more effort all around might have earned this album a buy, but as it is it's a definite burn with Better Luck Next Time in big letters underneath.

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