2004, 50-47 Xiu Xiu, Max Richter, Loretta Lynn and Comets on Fire

Xiu Xiu
Max Richter
Loretta Lynn
Comets on Fire
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Xiu Xiu: Fabulous Muscles

If there's anything I've learned about weirdness, it's that it's a very sharp and double-edged sword. It can be very good or it can be very bad, but at the very least it's interesting. I had only heard of Xiu Xiu before, and I was half-expecting some ultra hardcore screaming trash. But when I started playing it, some crazy beeps came out at me, then silence. Maybe bizarre techno like Aphex Twin? But I was wrong. The opening song, "Crank Heart" is basically modern techno pop/rock and is a really excellent opening number. The singer has a strange flamboyant whiny quality about it, which is reminiscent of today's emo singers but also sounds like old melodramatic 80s bands. But on the first two tracks (the second track has an almost Modest Mouse feel), it complements the music and is buried enough that it adds, not detracts. The songs have got good hooks and excellent instrumentation, too.

The album starts to go downhill from there. The opening line from the next song, "Bunny Gamer," "This feels retarded" does not give me hope for the future, and the song becomes a rambling piece of ambience. I lose all hope on track 5, "Support Our Troops." It is a spoken word piece, a la "Fitter Happier" (but read by a person), about our troops. It starts off:

"Did you know you were going to shoot off the top of a 4-year old girl's head and look across her car seat down into her skull and see in to her throat, and did you know that her dad would say to you, 'Please sir, can I take her body home?' Oh wait, you totally did know that that would happen. 'Cause you're a jock, who is too stupid and too greedy and too unmotivated to do anything else but still be the biggest and still do what other people tell you to do. You did it to still be a winner."
I should have shut it off there. Damn my stupid rule. It concludes, "Why should I care if you get killed?" It also includes two wonderful sound effects during the reading, the first of which sounds like a dog howling in pain mixed with a squeaky door, and second of which sounds like a fake fart gone wrong. I was expecting it to be like some of my friend H Duck's work, except H Duck's work sounds 50 times better and is about 500 times more poingnant and interesting. (I also checked online to see if the track was meant ironically. It was not.) I was very angry at the album at that point, which did not make appreciating the title track, "Fabulous Muscles," any easier. It's this sappy, sad, acoustic, slightly graphic "ballad" which sounds like it is Dr. Frankenfurter's love song to his creation, Rocky. Maybe the song is actually heart felt, but after the last song, I was not ready to give the singer any sympathy about his fond memories of his sexy muscle-clad lover. It's a ridiculously lame song, but it does acheive its effect of making the listener uncomfortable. The rest of the tracks are average, sounding like variations on the title track, except for "Clown Town," making it the third song worth listening to on the album.

Skip Xiu Xiu, unless you really really like melodramatic music with a slight avant-garde feel to it. Also, if you thought the spoken word paragraph was brilliant, buy it. If you want to listen, I'd say "Brian the Vampire" isn't terrible and strikes the best balance between all the songs.

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Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks

Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks is a series of instrumental pieces, most of them done with a small ensemble of classical instruments. They are broken up by the sound of someone typing, and a calming female voice reading passages from the book apparently being typed. To describe the instrumental pieces, let's do a little role play. Say you're a studio musician who has come down to do a recording for Mr. Richter. You arrive at the studio, and there, in the booth, is a music stand with the sheet music. You look at the music, and on it is 8 bars of music with a repeat sign and a crescendo. Maybe it says "Tacet first 8 times." Also on the page is a single instruction: "Play more emotionally each time!"

Max Richter, from what I have been told, is usually an electronica person, so the "forever looping building ensemble" is understandable. I can't decide if this is a good thing or not, but the album basically riffs off itself, providing us with variations on the two or three main themes in different modes. As a result, the album sounds almost completely homogenous but without any of the complexity of say, a classical composer like Mozart or Bach. Interspersed, of course, is the mysterious woman typing, and you can't really make out what the heck she is saying unless you crank up the volume to the point of hurting your eardrums. If it's meant to be there as ambient talking, too bad, because from the first track which I did turn up real quick, the talking sounds more interesting than the rest of the album.

It basically sounds like the score to some lame avant-garde independent film about an unstable, misunderstood author. And that's what this album is: mood music. But it's a very specific kind of mood: it's the kind of music you listen to if you want to put yourself into a "mysterious deep thinker" kind of mood. Unfortunately, this album provides the mood cheaply: kind of a "Pure Moods" for indie-style college kids. That being said, it's not entirely without merit: the album sounds ridiculously professional (except for not being able to hear the spoken parts), and it seems very well-thought out and well conceived. If you're planning to make a brilliant piece of artsy-fartsy film for Cannes, I suggest using this as your soundtrack.

But for me, I say skip it unless you hoarde music. Not because it's bad, but because I know if I burn it, I'll forget about it, and then one day find it somewhere and listen to it and go, "Huh. That's moderately interesting." For listening, check out "On the Nature of Daylight" for the happy theme, and "The Trees" for the sad theme.

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Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose

And now, Nashville. This album is a classic country album in every meaning of the phrase. It sounds like country music did back in the day when it wasn't complete crap, and was published in 2004 when the rest of country music is, well, complete crap. A lot of people like to backhandedly put the word 'pop' in front of categories to indicate that 'pop X' is pretty much the antithesis of whatever 'X' is. Sometimes it sticks: 'pop punk', 'pop psychology', and 'pop culture.' I won't do that with country, least of all because 'pop' is actually a useful term in talking about non-mainstream music. In the hands of college radio DJs and independent record store clerks everywhere, 'pop' is usually used to mean that independent band X has eschewed all common sense and decided to write songs that are catchy, listenable, and good. In that sense of the term, I suppose Loretta Lynn is 'pop'. But I digress: the point is that this isn't the Toby Keith/Rascal Flatts/Lonestar (I used to work at a country station, ok) kind of country. As far as I'm concerned, those groups have as much to do with country as The Backstreet Boys have to do with rock. It's more like Hank Williams, Sr. or Johnny Cash.

The only problem is that this album sounds too much like Johnny Cash. "Women's Prison" I think sounds a lot like Cash's version of "Delia's Gone." I think the album is a little bit derivative, and it loses points there. The lyrics also rehash the classic old country themes, but to complain about that would be like complaining that blues players should play different chord progressions. (They should.) Her voice also has the 70's Nashville twang, which slightly irritates me. But in her favor is that it does include a lot of rock influence, espeically influence from the blues. I'm not sure if this is a country standard or not, but many songs she incorporates anywhere from 1-3 key changes, each in between the Chorus-Verse space. It isn't a bombastic "My Heart Will Go On" kind of key change, but just a little boost to keep the song going after so much repetition. It sounds very natural when it happens. The centerpiece on this album, for me, is a really cute spoken anecdote (true or not I'm not sure) about a little 5-year old girl (the singer) who gets hit on the head and is too poor to own shoes or medical care. Whether it's honest and personal, or written and preplanned, it sounds spontaneous and is fun to listen to.

Van Lear Rose is certainly an accomplishment when the only people making these kind of music are the same people she is being derivative of. But a few new ideas definitely surface, so if you like country music, this is worth going out to get instead of the Hank Williams Sr. album you don't have it. It also has that "Southern woman sass" kind of humor, which I hate, but you might like it. Also humorous but not detrimental is that her duet partner on a couple songs sounds like 70s era Rod Stewart.

Burn it unless you hate country music. Buy it if you own more than 10 albums by Hank Williams (any one of em). "Women's Prison" is representative of the album as a whole.

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Comets on Fire: Blue Cathedral

Here's how a conversation between me and a friend would go about Comets on Fire:
ME: Hey, I have been listening to this Comets on Fire album.
FRIEND: Wow, Comets on Fire, huh? I've never heard of them!
M: Yeah, I hadn't either before I heard this.
F: Sounds like it could be cool? What's it like?
M: Comets on Fire makes you want to jump into a time machine, travel to the 70s, get high as fuck, and then party in your friend's VW Mini Bus which may or may not run, all while listening to Comets on Fire.
F: Far out.

This album made up mostly of repeated riffs with super fancy guitar solos with crazy effects and maybe some trippy Korg in the background or something. The vocals that are there are the lead singer doing his best impression of Pete Townshend doing his best impression of Robert Plant singing when he's not singing any actual lines (Whoo-ooh yeah! Whoaaa!). Some of the slower songs kinda sound like that band from Almost Famous. Some of them sound like they would be completely in place on Jethro Tull's full album "Thick as a Brick" (an album which you should listen to at least once in your life). None of the songs, however, are memorable.

But, if you love listening to bands jam at a fast, driving, tempo on the same riff for 7 minutes and just go all out crazy on the guitar and effects pedals, this is the band for you. In their benefit, when the band calms the hell down at a certain point on "Whiskey River" and breaks it down (~3:45), all of a sudden it sounds like a real song, and my ears perk up and I start getting into it again. 3 minutes later, and I just zone out again and start wondering if I have laundry to do at home. Which kind of feels to me, as a songwriter, like this band really has the talent to write good songs - they just get lazy and jam out the same riff for hours. Don't get me wrong, they're great riffs, and they definitely have a lot of talent (although the drummer is decent, he tries to do a Keith Moon impression and comes up short), but I don't need to hear the same riff over and over again (with variations) for 7 minutes. I don't care how many wacked out guitar wailin' solos or trippy ass Korg effects there are.

For me, skip it. If you are really into jam bands or just like to get high and throw somethin' "totally tits" on in the background, I say buy it and I give it 5 out of 5 pot leaves.

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