|I was pretty excited to hear this album when I heard that it was prog metal and only one 45 minute long track. Not to say that I'm a huge fan of prog metal or 45 minute long tracks (although I am a fan of Thick as a Brick), but it promised to be very interesting. |
Unfortunately, it ended up being as uninteresting as prog metal could possibly be.
Let me describe it to you: it starts off with a minute of the same guitar noise hit in straight eighth notes (it sounds surprisingly similar to the beginning of a Rival Schools song) and then turns into a rapidly played guitar lick with the drums playing the same rapid beat for another 2 or 3 minutes. Then the lick changes a little bit. Then it does it again.
That's right, ladies and gentleman. They recorded band practice. And this is the 50th best album of the year.
This is essentially a guitarist practicing the same parts of "Eruption" over and over again. I mean, I can understand why they do this - you're in prog metal band Orthelm, you HAVE to keep your chops tight. So at what point were they practicing their sweet licks and paradiddles when they thought, "Shit! Let's record this!" Did they have to prove to the world how fast they could shred? Were they going for the Guinness Record for "Tightest Band"? Or is it simply indicative of how retarded prog bands can be to think that an album comprising of only guitar licks is going to be entertaining or some kind of brilliant artistic statement? (See also: Mars Volta.)
The only thing that could make this album worth anything would be a recording of the band after they fuck up at 36:45 on like the 43rd take. "Fuck! We were almost there!! Goddammit Mick, this is fucking simple!! Look at me!"
As it is, I don't want to spend anymore time on this, so if you want to buy this album I suggest you go on YouTube and watch 14 year olds shred instead. It's far more entertaining. So skip, but more importantly a fuck you to Pitchfork. Oh, you're so fucking cool, this stuff is so awesome, can I borrow your copy of Metal Machine Music some time?
|WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Oh, Pitchfork. |
I heard this was "prog metal", which it isn't. I was hoping for some kind of dexterity. There is no dexterity. This is pointless, unpleasant, self-indulgent claptrap. One guitar, one drum set, one 45 minute track of endless repetition, pointless shreddy licks on top of furious but poorly-recorded and grooveless fills. Sort of like if you stripped Van Halen down to two pieces and then chopped up the tape into half-second lengths and put it back together randomly. The only way this could possibly be considered worthwhile is as a feat of endurance by the performers, and I'm sorry, but that doesn't really work on a record. I DON'T CARE HOW FAST YOU CAN PLAY YOUR GUITAR. I DON'T CARE ABOUT YOUR DOUBLE KICK PEDAL.
The worst, the worst thing about this is that they don't even start showing off until twenty minutes into the album. Up until that point it's one short repeated motif which just makes me want to claw my bits out. At least once the drummer starts to really hustle there's a slight compelling element in sitting there and imagining what it must look like to see somebody playing their toms that fast. There's a 2-second pattern that starts about a half-hour in that I kinda like just because it's unusual to hear organic beats going at that clip and regularity. But it just. Keeps. Going. Until all the novelty is gone. And then after that we get such an utter guitar-wank look-I'm-playing-a-high-note moment that it's all you can do not to laugh. And then... drum solo.
Why is this here? What sort of mind could actually sit down and listen to this all the way through for enjoyment? This album is for the kind of musicians (not music listeners - musicians) who measure their success in the number of notes they can play in five seconds. Technique fetishists. Which has about as much to do with actual music as stamp collecting. And is inspired by the same masculine evolutionary artifact.
Skippy skippy skippy skip skip.
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Fiery Furnaces: EP
|I'm almost scared to listen to the Fiery Furnaces' other album, "Rehearsing My Choir," because it seems to be universally panned by the "cool" critics, but those same critics felt they could take another dose of what amounts to "The Blueberry Boat Part II". "EP" is a collection of b-sides and unreleased tracks from "The Blueberry Boat", and it's a sequel in the bad kind of way, like how Super Mario Bros. II in Japan was nothing more than an extra level pack, which makes me think that "Rehearsing My Choir" is a sequel in a good kind of way, like how Super Mario Bros. II in the US was a redone version of Doki Doki Panic, but ultimately was the superior effort. My guess is that these same critics just wanted more of the same and hated throwing stupid vegetables around. You don't even get any fireballs in this one! |
Despite that, the tracks are a little different on this album, in that they are more focused. Instead of jumping back and forth between parts, each idea neatly separated into different tracks, often strung together by common beats or sounds. The lowest point of the album is unfortunately the opener, "Single Again," in which a Britney Spears "Toxic"-esque synth kicks off the song, which is a "ballad" about being married to a horrible man. The lyrics of the song are uninspired at best; they're by far the worst lyrics that this group has put out. In addition, even at 3:51, the song is way too long, offering no new musical or lyrical ideas along the way. It would be tolerable if it was just a minute long, but instead she drones on and on, singing, "oh I wish I was single again / and I wish I was single again / cause when I was single / my pockets did jingle / and I wish I was single again."
What made "Blueberry Boat" a success was its novelty and its plethora of interesting ideas. It was spastic and fun. But to listen to this after "Blueberry Boat" has me yelling, "stop trying so hard to be weird!!" The album does get better as you go on, though. "Tropical-Iceland" is as catchy as they come, and features an attempt to get intelligible lyrics from backwards vocals. It doesn't work, but it's interesting to listen to. The short (and perfectly sized) "Duffer St. George" has a weird take on "Jimmy Cracks Corn", "Smelling Cigarettes" and "Cousin Chris" both revisit the drunk clown-type story telling present on "Blueberry Boat."
Overall, though, this album is exactly what it is - a collection of material that wasn't released on their main album, and with good reason. Skip it unless you feel that "Blueberry Boat" just didn't give you enough Fiery Furnaces and you're not quite ready yet to be pulling vegetables out of the ground.
Fun fact: this is not actually an EP! It's an EP/b-side compilation, bringing together material from diverse eras in the band's history. Which, predictably, means that things get a lot better as they go along.
This is the first half of the album:
You remember my review of Blueberry Boat? Tone down the weirdness, make the songs actual song-length, inject some pop sensibility, but keep the bizarre synth noises and the random blues riffs. Then you got this stuff. Which I find....very...very...boring.
The progressions here are either standard pop progressions or don't happen at all. Take "Evergreen" -- unreverse the drum track and take away the blarting synth keyboard and it's an unspectacular pop ballad that could've been farted out by just about any mid-level band.
I guess the issue is that minus orchestral/compositional gimmicks I don't find the Friedbergers to be particularly compelling as pop musicians. "Tropical-Iceland" has the sort of riff that wouldn't be out of place in a Cranberries-style pop hit, strung out with the Furnaces' trademark wailing intentional dissonance. And it does get me bobbing my head and tapping my foot. It's a damn good song. But listening to it I sort of wish I was listening to the Magnetic Fields, who did the tortured/off-kilter instrumentation on a bubblegum hook thing ages ago and better. I'd be more generous about the Furnaces' attempt at the same sound if I thought their real talent didn't lie elsewhere. And thankfully, "Tropical-Iceland" marks the transition into their 2004 sound.
Which brings me to the second half of the album, which is far more reminiscent of Blueberry Boat, mini-orchestral sensibility and all. The lyrics get a lot more interesting, the progressions become unpredictable, but some pop elements from earlier in the album are retained. Which means you can tap your toe and have your brain stimulated at the same time! What a concept. "Sweet Spots" is particularly good, with a driving beat, a Chicago story (for which I am a sucker), a cool, weirdly asian melody, and a roiling synth pattern in the background that I recognize from the BB title track.
There're great moments aplenty scattered across the latter half of this album -- I mean, there's a freakin' bassoon on the last track, "Sullivan's Social Slub", a song which could've come right off of Blueberry Boat. So I give the latter half the sme solid burn I gave that album, and the first half an easy skip. I guess that adds up to a Burn-, which I will average down to a Skip cause I'm sad that we're reviewing this instead of "Rehearsing my Choir", which is all about Chicago and features Eleanor Friedberger's grandma on vocals. A stone classic, that.
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Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy
|Should I feel guilty about liking this album? The singer sounds like he's really sad about something, the material is dark; in short it sounds like Saddle Creek music. So where does Okkervil River succeed? It helps that his voice at the very least sounds honest - he sounds like he's been up all night rather than sobbing for the last hour (a la Bright Eyes). The melodies are also more endearing - I can't put my finger on it but they don't sound like they are trying too hard or be overbearing. Instead, they're very natural and organic — and sometimes catchy. |
Really, there are two reasons that this band doesn't completely disappear under the radar. The first is thanks to their lead singer. He has a distinct voice and delivery, and is capable of singing passionately in a way that is endearing. Okkervil River doesn't sound like a band; it sounds like a solo project. I'm not certain how much influence the rest of the band has on the writing, but it feels like this is more like the result of one man's effort. It could just be that this style of music is usually more populated by solo artists. After all, Weezer and Wilco are pretty much the work of Rivers Cuomo and Jeff Tweedy respectively, but they're still viewed as a "band", and Tweedy at least doesn't lack any charcter. Perhaps there's some kind of narcissism that comes through in his voice, but regardless it makes the music interesting.
The other part of this album that makes it more noticeable is its production. It was recorded at the renowned Tiny Telephone studio, and as a result this album is very pretty. In addition, there's a lot going on: trumpets, mandolins, cellos, and other instruments that are tastefully added rather than your standard "rock cello bridge." Every song is arranged excellently, every part working towards the overall atmosphere of the song.
The worst part, however, is that the atmosphere is exactly the same on many of the songs. This album's biggest problem is simple: it's excellent, but immediately forgettable. Some songs, however, stand out. "For Real" is a "quiet/loud" single with creepy lyrics about a bloodthirsty bipolar boy that comes out of nowhere, especially after hearing the subdued 1 minute acoustic-only opener. "For Real" is strong enough in my opinion should have been the opener, but it still works like it is. Other high points include "Black", that has Long Winters-inspired instrumentation, the penultimate marathon "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" that stays interesting at 8 minutes only because it furthers the "concept" of the album, and "A Stone" which has the best lyrics on the album.
Overall, this isn't a bad album to listen to, and you might even enjoy yourself doing so. I had thought about suggesting you burn the album, but I think that if you buy the album, you'll find yourself smiling a few times when you put in the album, thinking, "Why don't I listen to this more often?" before it ends up at the bottom of your CD collection, just waiting for the next time you remember you own the album.
I saw Okkervil River live once, opening for John Vanderslice. The most striking thing I remember about them is that the lead singer looked as if he might pass out at any given moment -- like he was so demolished there was whisky comin' out his pores -- and yet he still managed to command the audience. On here, that force of personality isn't really apparent. I think he's allowed himself to be eaten by the spirit of John Roderick. "Black" is basically a Long Winters song, from the indie pop-rock hustle down to the way the lyrics are constructed and the timbre of the singer's voice. Now, I like the Long Winters, so that shouldn't be a problem, but it gets really unnerving. Is this a ripoff? A tribute? A pastiche? Or is there just a factory somewhere that stamps out Barsuk-ready pop songwriters? And is there just a touch of Bruce Springsteen in there, too? I think there is. Freaky.
It's not all like that, of course. Sometimes it sounds like Calexico. There's a touch of the Magnetic Fields here and there. "A King And A Queen" sounds like the Long Winters covering a Magnetic Fields song, plus lush orchestration which reminds me of someone else, who I can't put my finger on. Wait....got it! Eels! He also sounds like the Eels!) As such, I like the song, but I keep having the vague feeling I've heard it somewhere before.
He sounds the most like himself when he's performing stripped-down acoustic numbers, as on "In A Radio Song" and "A Stone" (which sounds oddly like the old oft-covered favorite "Sam Stone"... sense a pattern?) Problem is those aren't too compelling on their own merits. I guess I should mention that this is sort of a concept album about being sad -- themes like the black sheep boy character and his stoney lover recur here and there, and the tracks bleed into each other with clever studio transitions. But that doesn't add much, really. And for indie rock, does melancholy even count as a concept? It's like calling a sandwich special because it has bread.
There's a lot of very pretty here, and the whole album is tremendously comfortable -- I feel like I'm sitting in a big fluffy armchair, floating in a big indie constellation where I can pick out all my favorite bands in the echoes of the pleasant, heartfelt sad sweetness. And sure, maybe you want to hear the Long Winters and the Eels and Death Cab and everyone at the time. It's economical. Particularly if you don't buy it, and burn it instead. Feel free to leave off the last ten minutes of the album, which crawl past as the central conceit finally collapses into droopy wallowing.
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The Boy Least Likely To: The Best Party Ever
|We probably all have one of those friends that are hypochondriacs and very vocal about it. I'm not sure if they are trying to get pity or what, but it's really annoying. "Oh you see, because I'm so weak during cold weather, I've had 4 colds and I think I'm getting a flu virus, and my injury from bowling 3 weeks ago is really acting up, so I don't think I'll be able to go out for a while." I guess they want to be the special little sufferers or something, but it's bloody annoying. The Best Party Ever is somewhat of a concept album, where the concept is "I am a neurotic hypochondriac." The guy is scared of spiders, flying, dying, the countryside, he sees spiders when he closes his eyes, afraid of letting go, he thinks he's got fleas or some tropical disease, he bruises like a tropical peach, he panicks about nothing, he sleeps with a gun under his pillow, he can't be happy without being unhappy, and he's even scared of monsters (who turn out to be his friends that are all having babies). If you listen to the lyrics, it gets a little grating. |
The album itself is mostly sacchrine sweet country/bluegrass-influenced singer/songwriter that sounds like it was recorded by one guy with a copy of Garage Band. It is pretty catchy, but it is in a way that is starkly opposed to the Okkervil River album. It's happy and reverby, and except for the slight lisp, there's nothing special about the lead singer. The production quality is clearer but every instrument sounds kind of like a cheesy sample, making this album kind of like the safe, pliable, molded plastic Fisher-Price children's playground in the mental ward down at St. Maryland's. Which are a hell of a lot of fun to play on, believe you me, but sometimes it just feels too sterilized.
This album also suffers from the same problem as the Okkervil River album, namely that the atmosphere remains static throughout pretty much the entire album. It doesn't help that the singer's voice is processed exactly the same on each track. Almost none of the songs stand out - the exception would have to be "I'm Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Cart", which is one of the few songs on the album that isn't complaining about being miserable.
Overall, I find myself with an utter lack of anything to say about this album. It was promising when it started, but it really gives the Fiery Furnaces album a run for its money for runner-up in this batch's "hardest to listen to" award. I think even in my best mood, I would be hard-pressed to argue for this album's inclusion anywhere. It's well done but completely dispensible, where as Okkervil was forgettable but still worth record shelf space. I'll never want to hear this album again, I think, so skip it.
So...twee... they don't even mess around, it's just out with the banjo, the xylophone, and the sensitive boy-child, buoyed along by a happy poppy rhythm section. All they're missing is the claps -- which, along with a tambourine, obligingly come in on track two. I swear I'm psychic.
The Boy Least Likely To enjoy singing about fluffy things. (And war, for some reason.) Nobody does twee like the British (with the possible exception of New Zealanders -- I am very much reminded of the Brunettes and their ilk) and these guys are absolutely shameless about being wide-eyed and childish. At their poppiest, as on "Paper Cuts", they're absolutely unbearable, sprinkling everything with corn-syrup and sending me spiraling into the depths of insulin shock. They walk a fine line between charming and nauseating, and I'm a guy who can listen to a Japanese voice actress singing a song about pandas in the scrunched-up voice of an eight-year-old with every outward sign of pleasure, so I know whereof I speak. I could see some people turning green and toppling over at the first rhythm-stick rasp of "I'm Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon To Your Star", but the pseudo-country stomp of it tickles me. It goes on a little too long, and the chorus is pushing it in the cuteness department, but hey. Why not.
And there are little touches on here that I really love, like "Warm Panda Cola", which is fifty seconds long and spends half of that on a harmonica solo. And somehow remains awesome anyway. And I get a kick out of songs like "Sleeping With A Gun Under My Pillow", which sound like John Lennon suddenly developed a passion for slide guitars. That song doesn't quite work, but it deserves props for sheer conceptual niftyness, which is a pass I end up giving quite a lot of this album. There's a quick test, though, to see whether this album is for you-- listen to "My Tiger My Heart", a song about how the problems with growing up and with not growing up, scored for guitar, upright bass and children playing. If you like it, or find it touching, you'll at least be able to tolerate the rest of the album. If you find it cloying, this stuff is really, really not for you.
It's not an album that I could listen to all the way through without hovering over the skip button, but there are bits of it that would be perfect for making mix CDs or tweaking one's mood on a cloudy day. Overall, therefore, a burn for sheer utility.
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email: dranger aatt gmail doott com & ajhoffer att gmail dott com