Good Night Abstraction

Concept: British drummer Seb Rochford’s “post”-jazz group is back with their fourth LP.

Sound: Polar Bear is about as cool by contemporary pop standards as jazz bands get without riding into primetime TV on the coattails of an aging alternative rock star, and they didn’t have to scrap their artistic integrity to do so. Not ostentatiously technical, not necessarily innovative — instead, clever and thoughtful. Most importantly, they have a habit of being oh so catchy, as on their potentially classic sophomore album Held On The Tips Of Fingers. Each album proving distinct, the follow-up went quite an opposite direction for the most part, and with Peepers comes the introduction of a backing guitarist and a revision of their previously explored styles. The band has freed up somewhat. Their poignant melancholy has burst in two, and the result might be compared to being read a bedtime story while the monster under your bed shifts its weight impatiently. The album vacillaties between a sublime dusk and threatening lurches of noise. Of the latter nature, Drunken Pharoah is the strongest piece, a ramshackle stomping sarcophagus with its hands full, dropping parts as it recollects others. Bump and Scream are satisfactory interludes, but nothing more. The piece Peepers itself, while strong in essence and slightly reminiscent of Polar Bear’s beloved early sound, contains some moments in its solos on the album version that are perhaps too awkward, however intentional they may be. The real centerpiece, unique and masterful, is A New Morning Will Come. Rarely is a piece both so hushed and so heavy. It’s as if the band was warming up and never started. They just dove deep into the tenuous glow of that pregnant moment every band knows. Every moment of it is valuable, comforting, and strange.

Lyrics: None, which is a pity, as the band’s past attempts at this have been subtle and moving.

Quick And Dirty: A diamond in the rough, as a whole imperfect but not easily forgotten. Still a band to watch, both live and figuratively. (♦♦♦♦)


Concept: Practically a MGM hip-hop musical from Damon Albarn’s warped “mainstream” imagination on the curious habit of planned obsolescence.

Sound: The strangest thing about Plastic Beach is that it just seems to keep drifting. Its dainty strings, bossa nova cheese, sci-fi pulp, club pop synthesizing, disco chorus, on and on, without ever once reaching the glaring chart-topper people have come to expect from this most indulgent of supergroups. Although this was made to be their ‘poppiest’ work, its steady, detached tone has better achieved what’s unique about Gorillaz than either Demon Days or the self-titled debut. There’s nothing normal or comfortable about movements like Sweepstakes, where whimsical whistling stacks on top of itself until it succumbs to a kind of weightless collapse. They’ve been trying real hard to make some kind of concept-album hip-hop masterpiece, and it’s only in recline on a plastic beach that it seems to be working. They’ve stopped coming to us, and now we have to come to them. Not that you have to — the sleepy, alien feel of the entire album is bound to be a portal to some, a splotch on the wall to others — but this is a new leaf for Gorillaz, with fewer gimmicks and more risks. Nobody can honestly call this album the work of a boy band.

Lyrics: The very few times that Albarn takes the front, the connection is all too clear between this album and psychedelic rock past. Rhinestone Eyes brings out both the flighty surreal freewheeling of Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s phantasmic fatalism. The funny thing is that he doesn’t seem to quite sympathize with them. Obviously, the game they’re playing is as old as pop itself, but the album’s lyrics are making the right move in gunning for a personal, spiritual focus in spite of the allure of ecstatic fantasy or sociopolitical despair. ‘Oh joys arise/ The sun has come again to hold you/ Sailing out the doldrums of/ the polyphonic prairies/ here, it’s all around you/ It’s all around you, out here/ The falling alcohol empire, is here to hold you/ Ruling out and haunted till it sinks/ Little memories, marching on/ Your little feet, working the machine/ Will it spin, will it soar/ My little dream, working the machine’. The hot bands of the 60’s and 70’s are “dead”, certainly disembodied, and Albarn in trying for a cartoon band might be putting the cart before the horse in the rock god mythos, but I’ll bet he means it when he sings ‘all we are is thoughts‘. What’s more depressing, that he might believe it or that he might wish it were true?

Quick And Dirty: A successful transcendence of their method. It ignores expectations…get it anyway. (♦♦♦♦½)

A Tomorrow Of Kindness

Concept: An opera based on the life of Charles Darwin.

Sound: It’s easy to see this as a soundtrack and not an independent piece. The tracks often develop very, very slowly. Depending on your personal taste in/tolerance for electronic sounds, the throbs and chirps of many of the tracks may infuriate you long before the group begins to orchestrate them. The Knife, in the end, is known if at all for two things: their light shows and their obstinate weirdness. The composition itself is often lackluster, bordering on what some might call “minimalist”, so without knowledge of the performance accompanying the album its value to a listener depends on their individual preference for the selected timbres, as well as their limits in fudging the line between pop and opera.

Lyrics: Some of it sounds like it could have been lifted straight out of Origin of the Species; forgive me if I don’t pull out my copy for a resource check. Other tracks are focused but impressionistic. While several lyrics lack a strong inherent rhythmic quality, the vocal work does seek to imbue them with qualities evocative of their subject, or the subject’s speculated emotional hold upon Darwin. The strategies for this are often silly, but it’s an intuitive move which may at times grab a listener’s attention.

Quick And Dirty: In the huge coin toss this album presents, it snagged my favor. It’s a good thing aesthetically polarizing music is still out there to be made and listened to, which is not to say that any polarizing album is good. Tomorrow, In A Year flirts with the passé and the pretentious, and what it all boils down to is a few questions. Do you like birds? Do you like a little soubrette? Do you like electronic music? If you scored two out of three, give it a go. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: The seventh album from art pop-rockers continues their trend out of freakish oddity, granted there is a long, long way to go.

Sound: Although Xiu Xiu’s sound is very distinct to say the least, I’d say each previous album has had a different instrumental theme. Dear God feels like a polished composite epic. Jamie Stewart’s voice has become more bearable to the first-time listener. The unique samples and effects are more in step with mainstream pop and less inclined to cacophony. The lyrics and melodies recycle once in a while. Thankfully, Stewart is still a terrible singer with an impeccable dramatic sense. His voice wobbles under his rage and bewilderment, and the snippets of strings, static, and alien voices shot in after his own are hair-raising. The biggest difference from old Xiu Xiu is the elaboration of the song structures. Unlike the sound, the structure is diverging from pop, ballads fraught with interludes that make the tunes seem much longer than the three minutes they all conform to. Since The Air Force, Xiu Xiu has become more attracted to their own experiments with acoustic instrumentation, and this has definitely paid off. The grinding cellos that visit from time to time belie a grandeur and thoughtfulness that simply does not come across with a hacked Speak n’ Spell linked to a megaphone. One thing I will say for this album’s sound as an improvement rather than a decline or mere change…anyone could listen to it, and nobody would outright smash their computer and stab themselves in the ears for doing so, and although Stewart’s bizarre sonic menagerie is tamed, it’s still just as vibrant.

Lyrics: Although Xiu Xiu’s lyrics were never that good, they seem to have been infected with the melodrama of the album cover. Xiu Xiu was always ‘extra outrageous’ in their content of molestation, abortion, suicide, HIV, child rape, and child prostitution, as well as their baffling one-liners, but there was often insight, originality, and punch to Stewart’s cutting insults and bleak laments. There is much less of that on Dear God, and more stock darkness: ‘look at what I’ve done/ you can protect nothing/… /there is nothing worse than to be born and live’, and although the emotion in his voice is convincing, his words aren’t. Outside of this, it still takes effort to accept other more absurd lines despite the strange sense they try to make within themselves: ‘when will it end/when will it end/the sopping wet towel of stupidity/… /a cartoon with no friends/yeah yeah yeah’.

Quick And Dirty: I’m willing to divide this between those who are and aren’t familiar with Xiu Xiu. There are maybe five tracks worth investigating for a fan, including the surprising (not necessarily great) cover of the Appalachian folk song ‘Cumberland Gap’. If you’re not a pretentious dweeb, this album is much more likely to appeal to you than the band’s first six albums. The worst thing about it is the title. (♦♦♦½)

Yoshi Story, anyone?

Concept: A casino cornucopia suite.

Sound: Jaga Jazzist has made a big switch from their previous work by foregoing electronic beats, scratching, etc., and taking further “prog” influence into their composition. The result is amazing. Every change is for the better. Although sampling is limited, its effect is maximized when applied, as in their Toccata. Martin Horntveth is simply a spectacular drummer with whom power and finesse go hand in hand, and he absolutely deserves to replace the band’s electronic kit. The star, however, is the compositional duo of Martin and his brother Lars, because barring that the album’s appeal is so widely distributed in instrumentation that there could be no sort of choice. The only thing that might throw off a listener is the aforementioned kitsch of its tone — gameshow tropes run amok. What this ends up meaning, though, is anxious but hopeful progressions melding into sporadic melodic rhythm that borders on fantasia. Half of the album seeks to enthrall, and the other half carries great depth which allows it that cherished quality of feeling new with each listen. Overall, the intended concept is performed almost perfectly, and I only say this because I’m trying not to deal in absolutes.

Lyrics: None.

Quick And Dirty: Probably the best jazz album of the year thus far. Definitely the best rock album. Unless you absolutely positively require a vocalist to get into music, this is worth a listen. (♦♦♦♦♦)


December 29, 2009

Some people look at the Fallout Boys and Brokencydes of the world and think ‘ugh, that’s my generation’. To those of you guilty of such thoughts, can it.

Molly Hatchet, Vanilla Ice, Chumbawumba, R.E.M. (yeah, I went there,) Cannibal Corpse, The Scorpions, The Rubettes. Any of these ring a bell? Painful, hollow bands will always exist so long as formula music yields Beverly Hills vistas and groupies. Not everybody knows this, but Fallout Boy used to be a mediocre metal band until they realized that their mockery of pop rock was insanely lucrative. Living a lie is pretty metal, as is bassist Pete Wentz’ intimidating demonstrated understanding of the industry beneath the marketed douchebag exterior.

Anyway, the point was that there is hope, and some wonderful things to remember this decade by…good bands and good albums have continued to emerge. Without further ado, a little time capsule — good things that happened in the 00’s:

Explanation mark.
1. Jaga Jazzist, The Books, and Tyondai Braxton
Electronic music makes its point with a bang.
The relationship of computers and music could get so ugly sometimes — inorganic, inflated, cheap, goofy. We gave it time, and these artists ensure it will pay off. The 00’s saw the decline of Richard D. James, who reminded the world that the computer didn’t need to make all the sounds it processed, tinkering endlessly to establish a plethora of new distortions and mechanical beats using anything he could get his hands on. Sampling allows a small band of talented individuals to produce any composition that’s on their minds, disregarding any technical challenge or expense their ambitions would have faced in the past. Sampling has, with these three groups, found its use for jazz, folk, and classical music. All genres are now [more] free to mingle.

An unbroken gaze.
2. Meshuggah
Rise of the Polymeter.
Meshuggah used to be nobodies in the world of metal, with repetitive drives and nonsensical jabberings about thought control. They looked back on jazz theory, had a few revelations and technical overhauls, and came back in the 00’s with I, Nothing, Catch 33, and ObZen to live up to their name (Yiddish for ‘insane’). The premise was simple: to use the old fishing metaphor, two hooks are better than one. Polymeter is what it sounds like, the simultaneous use of multiple meters, and along with the use of polyrhythm the result in Meshuggah’s work is truly mind boggling. Not content to be outdone for ‘heaviness’ by the largely disgraced Nu Metal genre, the guitarists bought eight-string guitars and dropped them a couple steps, squealing through tritones and always following their drummer’s masterful lead. This new sound caught the attention of fans and skeptics alike as a hypnotic percussive din that brought the world of metal quaking to its knees. The material is far from perfect, but it defies any other artist of any other style to imitate and improve upon their method. So far, few to no takers.

Hot as you've got.
3. At The Drive-In
Black sheep bite back.
At The Drive-In took the hand of punk aesthetics and twisted, hard. None of their trademarks should sound good: hyper, flailing vocals, dissonant harmonies, stream-of-consciousness rants…but it all makes a wonderful impression. The effort couldn’t be called innovative, but it proved influential. At the lip of the 00’s, the band fashioned their strongest album with a bullet, Relationship Of Command. It’s an acquired taste, but an invaluable lesson that many rockers hereafter have heeded, because every aspect of At The Drive-In’s sound is a tremendous risk that allowed them to soar above the conventions of pop punk peers. One more reminder that music needed the gritty eclecticism of Sonic Youth a lot more than it seemed to at the time.

Clowne towne.
4. Xiu Xiu
Pop returns to the shadows.
Pop music gets a bad rap for avoiding any form of independence or perspective. All Xiu Xiu had to do was the opposite. As far as ‘indie’ and hipsterisms go, the dynamic duo is the cream of the crop, building their own Dr. Seuss-like instruments from children’s toys and employing eastern styles of percussion and melody while investigating a brutal, cynical masochism that puts the whining of ’emo’ stereotypes to shame. As an ex-elementary teacher, frontman Jamie Stewart holds an exquisite talent for tapping into the tone and psyche of youth, and by holding this up to the events of his private life he most acutely expresses an otherwise nameless suffering. As the son of a California engineer and producer, he ensures that the instrumentation and compositions of Xiu Xiu match this tone with precision, plunging bubbling sing-alongs into wrenching atony. Experimental from the ground up, the band extends countless unique hooks from a hostile parallel universe.

A touch of class.
5. Outkast
No good thing ever dies.
Alright, Outkast may have been around since the mid-90’s, but it took until 2000 for them to explode into view with
Stankonia. Accessible and open-minded, the band blended funk, soul, pop, and hip-hop to crank out singles beloved by kids, parents, grandparents, domestic pets, and certain varieties of plantlife. Never the biggest band on earth, but always playing like it, the flair and short attention spans of their tracks produce something almost unthinkable by modern standards: mainstream music everyone can agree to enjoy.

 Sam Beam
6. Iron & Wine
Always more to say.
Iron & Wine may be a dorm standard by now, but Zach Braff’s endorsement doesn’t make Sam Beam any less of a songwriter. His voice is distinct from the greats, but the barrage of imagery always has a firm hold on the listener. The debut album,
Creek Drank The Cradle, is also far closer to genuine folk than whatever ‘alternative’ is — one man alone in a room with his thoughts — but Beam displays excellence in storytelling above all things.

Who can't find me?
7. MF Doom
Feasting on scraps.
Daniel Dumille is a face in his crowd, but the mask makes him the perfect subject. His theory: anybody can rap. Dumille has constructed his image by hopping into the shoes of anybody; a career made of side projects, cameos, and elevator music confirms him as hip-hop’s Frankenstein monster. Even the pied but logical progression of his rhymes make his writing seem like it’s been exhumed from beneath the concrete. His big break? Late night cartoons. Dumille is an after-hours sort of performer who doesn’t want to get found or be figured out, relying on cultural madness to have a method, and every critical and commercial success proves he’s not alone.

We'll make something out of them.
8. The White Stripes
We’ll make something out of ’em.
Ridiculously plain yet incomparably bizarre and inventive, The White Stripes are a hard slap in the face concerning the artistic mind and its inner workings. It’s all in the arrangement. Jack White has been so overrated as a guitarist that people seem to forget what a mastermind he is as a lyricist and sloganeer. He and his ex-wife have made six critically acclaimed albums with little more than power chords and a cymbal because of his feverish commitment to analyzing what’s right under everyone’s nose. The band’s work will find use for years to come more as a riddle and an icon than music, the product of absolutely subtle, absolutely simple songcraft that practically screams ‘Dylan just ain’t dead.’

Come on up to the house.
9. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits
Golden years.
Oh, that’s right. They’re still alive. They’re still great. They can make you feel like their best work is still ahead of them. While we’re at it, let’s not forget Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainright, and Beck.

Your life here.
The internet. It holds the names, the histories, and the music of almost every band you’ll ever hear of. The computer has made it easier than ever to get both good and bad exposure. I know my library would be a quarter of the size it is if it weren’t for Wikipedia, Pandora, and the HUB.

Hope you have all appreciated the ups and downs of this crazy decade, and are ready for another. Once more with feeling…


Concept: Psychedelic electronic pop group refuses to rest on its new laurels.

Sound: The opening track marks an even more ethereal tone for the band, and is musically more complex than most of their previous work. Unfortunately, the following tracks fall short of the promises of the first, more repetitive and tepid than new fans would expect. Here at KJNB, we’ve decided on the Animal Collective mantra: arpeggio, ostinato, reverb, offbeats, triplets. That is what Animal Collective ultimately is; the rest is subject to change. Graze is one exception to shelve with Lion In A Coma.

Lyrics: Again, Animal Collective, in relying on substance abuse, grapples with the confusion and inanity of their inspiration along with the chance glimmer of spirituality and wisdom. The lyrics betray a sense of the band spinning their wheels more than the music does.

Quick And Dirty: A dismissive and timely followup to Merriweather Post Pavilion that establishes the next destination without giving away too much. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: QOTSA guitarist/vocalist, Nirvana drummer, and Led Zeppelin bassist get together for whatever. It’s amazing it wasn’t hyped more.

Sound: There’s a wealth of addictive riffs on this album. The problem is that half of them serve as bookends or are hidden halfway into otherwise dull tracks like No One Loves Me And Neither Do I and Elephants. There are maybe five tracks that follow through with their nugget of pure rock fury. Dave Grohl is a perceptive and creative drummer, the same one that helped make a retro masterpiece of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf. Homme’s penchant for beating a riff into the listener’s skull is refined by violent rhythmic cuts and switches, which makes the difference on many songs. Although some of his old tricks are heavily recycled, Grohl and John Paul Jones put a new atmospheric spin on it so that it’s more of an acidic regurgitation. Reptiles and Interlude With Ludes present a relatively new sound for each of the collaborators, justifying the project. The theatrics they make on the side count for a lot of the album’s appeal. Jones uses a grotesque effect on slap bass to imitate the croaking of raptors, and Homme bends his strings to breaking point in open sections of verse to twist melody askew, punctuating the lyricism appropriately.

Lyrics: There are some albums that suffer from too much talk. Homme leaves little breathing room for the music, and sometimes his words just aren’t catchy enough to flow so freely. Having said that, while the occasional cliche and smarmy self-contradicting phrase takes the swagger out of a song, dark humor and machismo keeps the mood intact. “I’m going to smother you with my love/ forever and ever. Also, forever./…/ Is my face still bleeding?/ Then what is your problem?/…/ Sometimes you break a finger/ on the other hand/ I think you got me confused for a better man/…/ I think you got me confused.”

Quick And Derivative: Suffering from some derivative approaches, there are spacey, rocket-fueled highs and miserable, puttering lows. There’s tons of material on the album, plenty worth listening to, and the group clearly has the potential to make something spectacular in the future. (♦♦♦½)

Concept: An eclectic/random assortment of compositions by a local artist.

Sound: Competent if conventional easy listening jazz progressions, choral arrangements, and a closing industrial rock track for the SJU football team. The range of vocal talent is apparent but overwrought with compositional bravado. Grace notes and tremolo ahoy.

Lyrics: Somebody kill me. Overdetermined musical-style lyricism and embarrassing airbrushed heartbreak doodles. When You Said Goodbye gets two consecutive renditions for maximum torture. The arrogant, nearly sacrilegious tone of What Will You Do, God, When I Die? is repellant.

Quick And Dirty: Musician for hire at (♦½)

Concept: It’s a CD.

Sound: Funk rock, some bluegrass influence. It’s no stretch to give the description Incubus + Sister Hazel. Divergence, Take A Ride, and A Cup Of Love stand out as the best tracks on the album, closer to the skill and intensity of the live show.

Lyrics: …Lyrics are hard. Even the better tracks have pretty unremarkable lines. It’s not the focus anyway.

Quick And Dirty: There are some good grooves, but the album as a whole is diluted and could use more up tempo work or warm a cappella exhibitions like the ‘secret song’ at the end of the album. (♦♦♦½)