The year’s wrapping up, with no end to the musical dry spell in sight. What can we say, not a whole lot in the past six months seemed worth any interest. If you have any suggestions to argue against this, we welcome a shout-out or link. See y’all next year!

*****

TOP 5 ALBUMS OF 2010

5. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II

4. Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner

3. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma

2. Claudia Quintet – Royal Toast

1. Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit

(Honorable Mention: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs, Gorillaz – Plastic Beach, Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Owen Pallett – A Swedish Love Story, Beach House – Teen Dream, Polar Bear – Peepers, Yeasayer – Odd Blood, Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty, Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest, Janelle Monae – The Archandroid)

*****

BOTTOM 5

5. Bring Me The Horizon – There Is A Hell, Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven, Let’s Keep It A Secret

4. Lil Wayne – I Am Not A Human Being

3. Robyn – Body Talk

2. Sleigh Bells – Treats

1. Serj Tankian – Imperfect Harmonies

(Dishonorable Mention: Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Brandon Flowers – Flamingo)

*****

Concept: Arcade Fire’s central family reflects on their childhoods in the Canadian suburbs. As one critic eloquently put it, Funeral portrayed the death of a loved one like the end of the world, and Neon Bible was the inverse. The Suburbs hopes to deal with the more common, more pernicious issue of stifled ambition and false hope.

Sound: Before hitting upon the album’s positives, let’s dispel the myth of Arcade Fire’s towering genius and influence. They can’t have a whole lot of influence when all they are doing essentially is “reviving” the sounds and spirit of older bands. They already admitted this album was Depeche Mode meets Neil Young. That’s only half true, because they have foremost been a clone of Springsteen, and they can’t possibly have revived Springsteen, because Springsteen’s still here — why there he is now, standing right next to Win Butler performing an Arcade Fire song better than they can. By the way, Mr. Butler, was that you starting a rhythmic audience clap? Get out. Another chip off the Boss block, The Gaslight Anthem, established themselves on the music scene without riding a raging messianic tide of acclaim. They don’t need it, because unlike Arcade Fire they aren’t busting their asses attempting to be artistic about their shtick, and they aren’t boring. How do you unrepentantly imitate Springsteen and yet manage to so often make it, of all the things good and bad in his work, boring? The answer is that Butler, who must not be taken for a musical fool, has often been content to borrow a single wrinkly old pop rock progression, sometimes adding a clever twist somewhere in the middle, turn the volume down, cut the tempo in half, and then repeat it endlessly as both verse and chorus while melodramatizing it with snowballing layers of instumentation that often don’t even bother to harmonize or do so much as add rhythm. Nearly the only thing that redeemed Neon Bible of this was its brilliant anthemic closing track, My Body Is A Cage, perfectly suited for such an approach.
The good news about The Suburbs is not only has Arcade Fire exhibited some diversification of their tastes, but they’re more exciting of a listen track for track than they’ve ever been. Three of the first four songs are a welcome change for the band: the bleary-eyed ragtime opener; the hitching 9/8 frustration and paper thin optimism of Modern Man; the grand, OK Computer-esque anxiety of Rococo. At either end of a stretch of snoozers are Empty Room and Month Of May, both recalling the blurred dissonance and post-punk savvy of Sonic Youth. With the later tracks Deep Blue, We Used To Wait, and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), the impression is given that Arcade Fire is making an effort to subsume all the pop subgenres of the mid to late 1980s. The resultant tragically tacky and misguided futurism works out as one of several good ways to close an album of qualms with suburbia, even if the gesture doesn’t quite engage or entertain.

Lyrics: Arcade Fire, while occassionally hitting on an indelible image, doesn’t have the biggest way with words. They shoulder some pretty corny black-and-white ideas and they’re not afraid of proselytizing. The album’s more significant lyrics in a nutshell: you spend your life waiting and then it has passed you by, you don’t recognize your old friends, you want to escape the bright lights of civilization for the freedom of darkness and unknowing, and we’re all still impure, impatient children. The bands’ skill with inflection makes all the difference with many seemingly poor lines.

Quick And Dirty: A step in the right direction, stuffing classic rock sound with baroque pop figures old and new and a sprinkling of dark noise. If you’re an Arcade Fire fan, odds are nothing will ever measure up to Funeral for you, but this surely comes close, and for everyone else it will come off much better. (♦♦♦♦)

Concept: The hipster demigods root their fourth LP in samples of New Age hypnotherapy tapes.

Sound: The Books’ completely distinct sound has its share of great results. Exhibit A, their masterpiece Tokyo. With The Way Out, they move even further from their original sound in the same way they did on the last album — more of vocalist Nick Zammuto, more electric distortion. This is easily their loudest album, which isn’t saying much, but it’s thus the easiest to keep your attention on, for what it’s worth. Of their new sound, I Am Who I Am and The Story Of Hip Hop stand out. There are a few remnants of their more familiar sound with its shades of folk and classical, I Didn’t Know That and Beautiful People being the most accomplished. While some people complain that Zammuto’s voice is too tepid, the biggest obstacle for The Books is a consequence of its essential method of constantly gathering the most obscure material possible for its sound. The sample-heavy tracks are expertly coordinated from moment to moment, but are they actually organized? What are we supposed to hold onto or take from these trains of non-sequitur after non-sequitur? Plenty of people would argue there is a difference between music and a gag reel. While people can become accustomed to just about anything, there remains a point where form begins to detract from function, and The Books spend a lot of their time teetering on that point.

Lyrics: Boldly expanding the boundaries of nonsensicality by reassembling already bizarre therepeutic scam jargon. Have a taste of the final track, Group Autogenics II: “…tuning in now to the feet. You might try lifting them up towards the ears, and when you feel comfortable with it, allowing your eyes to close gently, in your mind’s eye. Your being merges with the garbage, becomes one with it, so that all your energies in this moment are held in awareness by the smells, and remembering that there is no one right way to doing the dishes. And let go completely of the question of time. When this happens, as an experiment, see if you can float on a rubber raft into a big pot of boredom, letting it all cook in your mind’s eye, where it cooks all by itself, stirring it, perhaps, every once and a while. Is that ok with you?/… /You are becoming, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Blue Rose. Blue Rose!”
Well, is that ok with you? How important is uniqueness to your sensibilities? Do you mind it driving you nuts? Maybe that’s The Books’ point. Maybe.

Quick And Dirty: Still sounds like nothing else by sounding like as much else, musical or not, as conceivably possible. If an individual style is your only standard, kneel before your idol. If you have any other expectations, there’s no guarantee whether The Books will satisfy. (♦♦♦½)

Apology/Game Plan

July 21, 2010

To all our blog’s beloved viewers,

What’s it been? Five months? The two principal writers of KJNB reviews have been abroad for the past semester, and thus become extremely neglectful. We are resuming our duties presently! Below you will find a list of albums we intended to get to but didn’t, and below that our make-up reviews of albums extending back to February with Jaga Jazzist’s One-Armed Bandit. Thank you all very much for your interest and input. This is quite frankly a great year for music. See you around!

The Tallest Man On Earth – Wild Hunt (Positive)

Fionn Regan – Shadow Of An Empire (Mixed)

Foals – Total Life Forever (Negative)

Black Keys – Brothers (Positive)

The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang (Positive)

Jason Moran – Ten (???)

Concept: The much hyped and anticipated second album of the Canadian electronic dance group.

Sound: Strangely inconsistent. A lot of the album is quite unspectacular, and then it begrudgingly kicks into full house party mode. Where does the power go in between the tailored smash hits? While composer/producer Ethan Kath must be credited for the fuzzy, delirious drives on the big tracks, Alice Glass’ ferocious voice provides the decisive overkill. If you’re one of those people who was dissapointed by the conspicuous absence of Nick Zinner’s chilling guitar on Yeah Yeah Yeah’s It’s Blitz!, not to mention the general persistence of Karen O O O‘s problem problem problem with chanting chanting chanting, this might be adequate recourse, although Crystal Castles’ live performance is nowhere near as energizing or flamboyant and far less attractive than its recordings. I understand the categorical divides between the two groups, but they clearly reach for much of the same appeal. With that said, Crystal Castles 2, when it’s ready to go, has an ideal blend of eerie gothic edge and midnight rave intensity.

Lyrics: Thankfully inaudible, they range from innocuously vague to childishly morbid to genuinely morbid. Mostly the first two.

Quick And Dirty: Venturing a guess here by memory — six of the album’s fourteen tracks are winners, although possibly more suitable for getting psyched about nothing on a rainy day or straight up losing your mind on the dancefloor than actually dancing. (♦♦♦♦)

Concept: Starring Michael Cera.

Sound: Story hour, guys and dolls. Once upon a time, some independently produced records began to experience moderate success again. Producing your own music became a fad. Then the industry got in on “indie” as some kind of snapshot genre, mimicking and processing to hell the sounds and aesthetic of the seminal bands, and this sound and aesthetic in turn influenced independent artists, until it was unclear what distinguished them from each other or what was done in jest or artistic earnest and “indie” ate itself and died in its own stomach as all counter-anythings seem to nowadays, and its corpse continued to perform base bodily functions for the next several years, giving us crossover hits in various corners of culture like Napoleon Dynamite, Pitchfork, MC Chris, Girl Talk (whom I hate myself for listening to), cookie-cutter pseudo-DIY music videos with the band holding flipbooks of itself performing or construction paper puppets with permanent marker slogans, which somehow got 60% of all corporate ads employing the same snotty feeble strategy, which is pretty much the definition of a first world humanitarian crisis, and always, always neo-retro special needs kindergarten fashion sense, hair cut with a lawnmower blade and a cereal bowl during a tsunami and plaid flannel chullos and sloganized tees against sloganized tees and glasses with rims at least twice the thickness of your femur and the bleeding-ears-loud wallpaper tights under jean skiiiiiirts wauuuuggghhh. In short, we became the world’s Japan, since Japanese culture is no longer recognized as something of this earth.

No.

Newest king of the hill in the incestuous orgy pile is Sleigh Bells, with harmless sex-kitten vocals buried under blaring keyboard guitars performing every radio trope you never wanted to hear again. That’s it. That’s Treats, its “energetic” “riffs” and “beats” hoisted on high as the #1 guilty-pleasure of the summer among critics by the power of reverse psychology, i.e. the novelty of its redundancy. I will admit nobody has ever been this rehashed in this way. If that’s genre-bending, I quit. No, I don’t care if M.I.A. likes it. Before the horrifying disappointment which was /\/\/\Y/\, M.I.A. actually sounded good once cranked through the studio, in total contrast to her embarrassing live act and in total contrast to everything Sleigh Bells does. The catch is that allegedly if you turn the music all the way up it sounds completely different. Since I gave the benefit of the doubt to noise band Sunn O))) way back when I was unaware this gag actually existed, I gave it now. The result was an honest-to-goodness headache that lasted the entire day. I caught some more keyboards dicking around than previously thought. Way to hide the only semblance of a redeeming quality in your instrumentation beneath a mile of garbage, Sleigh Bells.

Lyrics: Behold the cheerleading stylinz of twee, the equivalent of wetting your pants as a joke, which sort of jives with Sleigh Bells’ stage presence in the first place. “Have a heart, have a heart, have a heart/ sixteen six six six like the Pentagon /… / we form a tarot pack/ and I’m aware of that/ but we could fist fight drunk like the parent trap/ keep thinking about every straight face yes/ wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces/ we never blink see/ and you can see me/ we fell asleep in the middle of the fury/ so this is it then?/ you’re here to win friends/ click click saddle up see you on the moon then/ you’re all alone friend/ pick up their phones then/ ring ring call them up/ tell them about the new trends“. Quitting before you start so you can’t fail hasn’t worked for any lyricist since the Beatles, when the majority of the Western world was too busy sitting on a handknit blanket in a mud pit staring at the spirit colors flowing from their hands to remember what languages they spoke. What’s your excuse?

Quick And Dirty: I’m adding an extra star to buffer against my venomous prejudice against this stupid junk. (♦♦)

Concept: Update from another group of “post”-jazz sweethearts led by a percussionist composer (John Hollenbeck) and welcoming a guest member onto the album (pianist Gary Versace).

Sound: The titular piece (here performed without Versace) is beyond my full comprehension. Not only are there so many goofy syncopations around that I could not determine the initial meter independently, but I find it almost impossible to accept as the above video’s poster claims that its A section is plain old 4/4. I mean, if that thing doesn’t have alternations of 6/4 poking about in it, put me in a straightjacket. Then, before you know it, you’re somehow in 10/4. The Quintet’s members are magicians of transition. They draw the ear away from theme and rhythm, and slide in substitutes part by part. None of the pieces include a self-indulgent collapse, however. There is a co-orientation rather than chaos between them. They are carefully committed to simultaneously straying only so far from each other and no further, as if emulating tensegrity or imitating the reflexivity of improvisation. It’s an elucidation of free jazz, a conversion of free jazz’ supposed explorations to compositional technique. They’re definitely on to something. The downside is that whatever they’re doing and whatever it means can’t really be understood and thereby appreciated by the majority of us listeners just scrounging around in our leisure time, myself included. We can only hope to enjoy this stuff. While The Claudia Quintet’s masterful control and subtle use of dynamic makes their fluid experimentation more palatable, the baths of crunched rapid-fire polyrhythm and syncopation which extend through many of the pieces could be too distracting for anyone unaccustomed to such things. This is probably the best introduction to their work, though, with several uncharacteristically soft pieces that highlight the bands’ intuition over their calculation.

Lyrics: None

Quick And Dirty: As tempered and presentable as technical innovation gets. (♦♦♦♦½)

Concept: The second and third suites of a Metropolis style sci-fi concept arch, during which the android protagonist realizes she’s the One, and prepares to overthrow The Big Brother Matrix Man. Big Boi, Saul Williams, Of Montreal, and Deep Cotton join in.

Sound:  Well, there’s nothing wrong with the album. In sum, it’s a kaleidoscope of pop; Monáe cannot be accused of homogeneity, and her voice morphs tactfully to suit it all. The songs are not weighted by the concept either…they’ll fit right in if shuffled into a playlist. The album nevertheless falls short of being a great one. The songs each remain very much a cameo, none a fully-fledged scene, consistently opting for textural rather than structural flexibility with the scant but formidable exceptions of the classical interludes. While all tantalizing, to hear thirty seconds of a track is pretty comparable to hearing the whole. It could be argued that Stevie Wonder had much the same approach in Songs In the Key of Life, but Monáe’s jams (if you see fit to dub them as such) certainly do not match his for experimentalism or pure melodic imagination. Her aim is admirable and true, and it pretty much had to fall short in the wider scope of musical standards.

Lyrics: While Monáe’s voice is versatile, from smooth crooning to a nimble staccato flow and plenty more, her lyrics are thoroughly tired, and her rhyme schemes could use a lot more work period.

Concept: Seeking to live up to influences such as Wonder, Bowie, and Outkast, Monáe has a lot of work to do. This is a worthy milestone in that effort. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: The only existing Nu Metal band with a sense of dignity manages a seventh album to replace its unreleased sixth, out of respect for their former bassist who is currently in a coma. As the unreleased album, Eros, allegedly returns to their aggressive earlier sound, Diamond Eyes is presented as ecstatic and celebratory.

Sound: Ever since their sophomore release, Deftones have displayed a peculiar but attractive combination of hip-hop, metal, and ambient pop. The third is where their proficiency lies, and the drift of hazy, erotic vocals in contrast over pounding, growling eight string guitar is their trademark. This formula still seems to work for them, but their eerie electronics and alternately infectious and majestic drumwork are lacking this time around. Furthermore, there’s a dangerous new element at play. The majority of tracks feature multiple bridges, interludes, or cuts into different time signatures. That sounds like close to an absolute benefit, but it’s executed terribly half of the time, most blatantly on their second single, Rocket Skates. Each piece of it sounds good, but it’s slapped together in a disjunctive, stunted circuit, and then grossly overdrawn. Deftones has always drifted, and with the coupling of this habit to more complicated formats they come across as indecisive and dissipating. Other songs, most notably Prince and Risk, bear the recycled traces of earlier hits in an attempt to remedy this. Taming looser time signatures into pop format serves them well on three occassions by adding sweep to the chorus of the titular song and swagger on You’ve Seen The Butcher and the verse of the album’s noisiest track, CMND/CTRL, which very well may be the best of the lot.

Lyrics: Frontman Chino Moreno’s lyricism has made a noticable decline over the last two albums, and not only because it has become more repetitive. He’s losing his ability to paint a picture and cranking out tactless, seemingly unrelated phrases more frequently. That is especially a problem when your lyricism’s content consists almost entirely of attempts to elegantly conflate sex and death.  Luckily, some of it still fits together, and he can still align his words with the emotion of the music to dramatic effect.

Quick And Dirty: Both less original and less listenable than their previous work. If you’ve never listened to Deftones before, this might be a nice sampler of their range of riffs, but speaking as a fan it only proved disillusioning. (♦♦♦)

Concept: Oh, what a delightfully obscure reference! Now, Thom Yorke’s coming over, so this is the best thing since Hearing Damage from the Twilight soundtrack or else nothing is sacred anymore, okay?

Sound : It must be emphasized that without good speakers or headphones this album is not half of what it can be. It is literally not a very accessible album. There are certain requirements for physically experiencing the finer touches and picking out the extra sounds that bump this up from just another hip-hop mash. Cosmogramma isn’t just a glut of classy and diverse samples. It’s been recorded and produced to feel like the real thing, if not better, since it gives a sort of parallax experience of all its contents, like you’re onstage walking back and forth among the players. If Flying Lotus had decided to drop a pin, you’d hear it under the bubbling jazz bass, videogame trills, and shuffling percussion. The influences certainly don’t end there. I’m not sure where they end. In this respect, the album’s the real deal, the next big thing for hip-hop. If you’re using your iPod earbuds for this though, as I first did when the album came out, you are likely to be very underwhelmed by many tracks, although some still refuse to have their excellence ignored.

Lyrics: Scatting, crazed laughter, oohs and ahs, whoever Laura Darlington is she rocks you, Thom Yorke needs a hug.

Quick And Dirty: One of the very best hip-hop instrumental/sample albums, right up there with DJ Shadow and The Avalanches. I do feel a good sound system is so integral to the album that I’m putting down two ratings for the two ways to hear it. One way or the other, you know what to do. (♦♦♦♦♦ or ♦♦♦)