Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dance Yrself Dirty

LCD Soundsystem
This Is Happening (2010)
Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

For those unaware, LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy has created something of a debate among those who fill their free hours by listening to music. To some, Murphy represents the real fucking deal, the guy who blends beats, rock tendencies, and bizarre electronic noises better than anyone. To some, Murphy is a producer at the top of his game, a true titan of the music scene as it stands in 2010. However, for all the critical acclaim that has been shoveled LCD's way over the past half-decade and change, there are certainly still detractors. There are plenty of negative (or middling) words to be read concerning Murphy, and there are plenty of folks not ready to adorn his latest (and reportedly last) work as LCD Soundsystem an unqualified success.

Now it's time to announce my own stance. Me, I'm in Murphy's corner all the way. No, I'm not going to ever list LCD Soundsystem as one of my top handful of artists ever, but in the here and now there aren't really many better acts going. Even more impressive is the fact that each of the three major LCD records have shown improvements. The self-titled debut was impressive but occasionally uneven, but Sound of Silver and This Is Happening are both just about flawless. And when I say that, I mean it. Neither album is bound to elicit a whole lot of track-skipping.

I also don't fault Murphy one bit when it comes to his socially self-aware lyrics. As a guy who's spent a long time in the music game, he's obviously concerned about how he and his work are viewed to some degree. Does that make him come off as arrogant at times? I don't really think so, but others do. To me, as a creative-type person, you're always at least minimally curious to see what others think of your creations. To deny that is to embrace ignorance or feign some sort of cool that just doesn't (and shouldn't) exist. So if Murphy wants to talk about his reluctance to go certain directions with his art, his tendencies to worry about critical opinion, or his own poetic doubts, I don't see how that's anything but open and honest. If you want to bitch about the oblique nature of lyrics in indie music, LCD Soundsystem shouldn't be your target.

Having officially put my arm around Murphy, let me also say that I realize the guy is influenced by others. You don't have to pull my arm to get me to admit I hear some Talking Heads, David Bowie, and Brian Eno on Happening. Thing is, if we're going to start bitching at artists who take some of their creative notes from others, who are we not going to bitch at? So if you're me, you don't give two shits that "All I Want" sounds somewhat like Bowie. You just care that it's awesome, and you care that the lead guitar and random bleeps and bloops get the job done. You also don't care that Murphy takes almost three minutes to get into the meat of "Dance Yrself Clean". You care that once he does, it's totally worth it, and you literally can't stop different body parts from sporadically twitching.

"You Wanted A Hit", that's a great song, too. Nearly nine minutes of constant buildup about the artistic process are always welcome here. Over the course of the nine tracks on This Is Happening, boredom isn't going to ensue. As I alluded to earlier, there isn't a particularly weak track in the bunch. Oddly enough, the weakest is probably either lead single "Drunk Girls" or the slow, meandering penultimate "Somebody's Calling Me". Honestly, though, I wouldn't refer to either as weak. As my rating suggests, this is an excellent record I'll be listening to early and often. If this is the last thing we get from Murphy under his current nominal existence, I'm cool with it. Way to go out on top. Regardless, the 40 year-old is among the best and smartest producers working right now, so we'll be hearing from him again one way or another.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pearl Harbor

Here is a self-serving, dramatic poem thing I wrote. Hey, we all deal with things in our own way!

When I was younger, I used to think things were going to be okay. My head used to hurt. But me, I thought everything was going to be okay. My mom, she started to take drugs to make it all go away. My dad, he started to drink more and hope it would go away. My mom, she started to dream things she never saw. My dad, his chest started to hurt. When I was young, I thought everything was going to be okay. My mom, she started to cry alone in the bathroom. My dad, he started to put his head in his hands. Me, I started to take a dozen pills at a time. When I was young, I thought everything was going to be okay. My mom, she started to burst blood vessels. My dad, he started coughing up blood. Me, I started cutting holes in my arms. My sister, she tried to ignore it all. When I was young I told everyone we were all great. My mom, she started to feel things she shouldn't. My dad, he never saw a doctor. Me, my face started to burn, My sister, she had to hold her past so tight. My brother, his fists started to clinch. When I was young, I looked the other way. My mom, her eyes were so red. My dad, he fell apart so fast. Me, I wished he could see me. My sister, she stood on such a pillar. My brother, he only told his wife. When I was young, I lost my father. My mom, she was so embarrassed to feel how she did. My dad, he's somewhere else. Me, I'm so goddamn numb. My sister, she works it away. My brother, he doesn't believe it. None of us believe it. Us, we're all asleep. Us, we're all dead. It's just a matter of time. But please, please don't give up before it's over.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Somber Situations

I'll talk about music as much as I want. Fuck yourself.

The National
High Violet (2010)ItalicRating: 8.5 (out of 10)

The National have been a go-to band for those up late with nothing to do but drink for a while now. It's those baritone vocals, the gradual impact of the band's sound, and those jittery drums. It's the feeling you get when you try to imitate the voice yourself after too many drinks, it's the high you hit once the band reaches their own climax. For those familiar with what The National do, High Violet isn't going to be particularly surprising, but that isn't always a bad thing. This is an incredibly dependable band releasing its third consecutive eyebrow-raising record. This is acute professionalism cloaked in doom and a little bit of guarded optimism. This is, in many ways, the culmination of what The National have been hinting at for some time.

Is High Violet as good as Boxer or Alligator? Maybe not, but does it matter? All three records are exercises in precision and restraint. The National are good because they aren't going to beat you over the head with how epic they (sort of) are. If you're listening to a Broken Social Scene song and it gets epic, it's going to blow you the fuck out of the room. You're going to hear more instruments and vocal tracks than you can count. You're going to get overwhelmed, and that works for them. But The National are a little bit trickier. Take "Afraid of Everyone," for example. The song builds gradually around a haunting melody. The back-up vocals (in part provided by Sufjan Stevens) coo while the instruments swirl. And as for that baritone voice (it's Matt Berninger for those not acquainted), it does a lot of work. By the end of the song, you're going to be shitting your pants, but you're not going to be sure how you got to that point. And once you pass "Afraid" on the track list, you're going to have a similar reaction to the stellar "Bloodbuzz, Ohio".

So if The National have been doing pretty much the same thing for three straight albums, why do I praise them? Why the kind words? Well, things keep changing slightly. On Alligator the band lost their shit sometimes. Berninger would start to freak out and things would get a little bit out of hand; that's what worked for The National five years ago. A couple of years later on Boxer, the band grew up a little bit, mastering the art of tension and subtle release, captivating audiences with a dark aesthetic and antsy drums. High Violet follows this trajectory logically, offering the collective cool executed so perfectly on Boxer while beefing up the instrumentation and giving Berninger more room to breathe. Those unimpressed with what High Violet are probably disappointed the band has yet to craft their real masterpiece. For me, it's enough that the band consistently dabbles in excellence.

If there's a complaint to be had, it's that High Violet doesn't feature anything that could really be considered up-tempo. It might have been nice for a couple of energetic songs to find their way in both the first and last half of the album, but to demand it would be foolish. The National know what they're doing, and because they do they've been able to rise near the top of the indie-rock world as we enter a new decade. Smack dab in the middle of their career, this is a band that even has some room to grow. Just as I felt after Boxer, the best may be yet to come.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Joy! Joy! Joy!

It's time for you to read about the newest of The New Pornographers. Don't want to? Then I hate you.

The New Pornographers

Together (2010)
Rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Since I started writing songs myself, really writing songs, I've always had something of a power-pop bent. There's something magical about big chords, sweet hooks, and choruses you just keep wanting to return to long after a first listen. Despite my love of quality power-pop, I've run into some issues when searching for artists to fill this particular musical void. Scratch that. Really it's just one issue. Most power-pop bands are shitty. It's because of this fact that I so readily latched onto The New Pornographers, a band that includes folks like Carl Newman (once of Zumpano), Dan Bejar (of Destroyer), and Neko Case (she has a prominent solo career).

After three truly excellent albums to begin their career together, The New Pornos sort of faltered on their senior outing. It's not that 2007's Challengers was bad or anything, it just wasn't up to standards. Quite frankly, it felt like an album made by a talented collective that lost their steam and was ready to fall into Veteran Indie Musician Mediocrity. Three years later, I know all of that to be complete bullshit. Challengers was a little bit of a misfire, but it had very little to do with the career path the band had in mind. This is crystal clear right out of the gate on Together.

"Moves" is the sort of Pornos song that litters 2005's Twin Cinema. It runs around, ratchets up the happy, and rattles between the ears. As soon as I heard it for the first time, I felt abundant relief and excitement for the rest of the album. "Crash Years" is catchy as hell, and even if it isn't "Letter From An Occupant," Neko Case really tears it up. And then comes "Your Hands (Together)," another song with a big hook and some unforgettable moments. Let's just say Together has a powerful triumvirate to start things off, and things don't get much worse the rest of the way. "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk" feels pretty triumphant, and "Valkyrie In the Roller Disco" offers a temporary and effective change of pace. "A Bite Out of My Bed" is a real pop gem, while "We End Up Together" fits perfectly as this album's closer.

Things aren't completely flawless on Together, but they're reasonably close. Once again, Dan Bejar's contributions feel a little bit, um, annoying sometimes. "Silver Jenny Dollar" is pleasant enough, but Bejar's exaggerated pronunciations are starting to wear thin on me. "If You Can't See My Mirrors" has sort of the same effect; Bejar just sounds creepy sometimes, and not in the good way.

The overall package presented to us as Together is a really good one that falls just short of the band's very best moments. Together is aptly named. For me, it's a record that you listen to with someone you love, something you have playing while your windows are down and you're driving somewhere exciting. Appropriately enough given its release date, it's a fantastic group of songs to listen to as the flowers bloom and spring gives way to summer. I'm pleasantly surprised by this one, and I've learned my lesson. Quit doubting immense talent.