Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cover Your Tracks: Electrelane, "I'm On Fire"

Bruce Springsteen occupies a thick stratum of the American musical bedrock, somewhere where folk and rock and soul are forged into a heavier, elemental crust; his music is righteous and undeniable, and immune to fashion or whatever musical trends the kids are futzing around with. So when his songs are covered by punk poet Patti Smith ("Because The Night") or the groovy r'n'b Pointer Sisters ("Fire"), no one blinks. When I heard Sleater-Kinney cover "Promised Land" in concert many years back, it made sense, too—they found the frustration in the song's core and translated it into their punk idiom.

In the 2000s, Electrelane made four good albums of keyboard-driven, droning rave-up, sort of like Stereolab's punkier younger sister on a VU kick. They too, found a Bruce track whose dour folk melody conveys dark frustration, regardless of the musical backing. So their organ-drenched, accelerated reading of "I'm On Fire" (originally a b-side) likewise turns the quiet, desperate original into a punk rave-up. The only problem is that it's not long enough.

Electrelane cover Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire":

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Preview: The Radio Dept., "Passive Aggressive: Singles 2002 - 2010"

News that the Radio Dept. would be releasing a singles collection was met with much rejoicing among a small group of obsessive music fans in sweaters, the sort who used to buy import 2-part singles in the 90s, just for the b-sides, and who spend hours trolling through the internet's darker corners looking for rare tracks by beloved superheroes. The Radio Dept. have maintained an extremely high level of quality throughout their career, with three excellent albums of fuzzy, sad indie pop, the perfect soundtrack for drinking tea while fretting about things. If you only have their three albums, though, then you are missing out on the bounty of b-sides and one-off singles. It is with some disappointment that I must report that the singles collection track listing does not quite meet collector-geek criteria. In fact, there are so many b-sides missing that the wistful sadness of it all makes me want to drink tea and listen to the Radio Dept. This collection was perhaps designed as an introduction to the band for the neophyte, and if so, it certainly hits all of their best songs, and would make an excellent gift for a younger sibling who like to read. But fans and collector types should note that the following songs, some of which are quite good, are not on this collection (I haven't included live tracks, radio sessions, or unreleased material):

  1. Tell You About My Job Where Damage Isn't Already Done EP 2002
  2. Bad Reputation Annie Laurie EP 2002
  3. Falafel Annie Laurie EP 2002
  4. We Climb The Wired Fences Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
  5. Someone Else Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
  6. The City Limit Pulling Our Weight EP 2003
  7. I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band Why Won't You Talk About It? EP 2004
  8. The Things That Went Wrong Ewan EP 2004
  9. Deliverance This Past Week EP 2005
  10. I Don't Like This This Past Week EP 2005
  11. Let Me Have This This Past Week EP 2005
  12. Värnhem This Past Week EP 2005
  13. Flow Flux Clan Remix The Worst Taste In Music EP 2006
  14. Industry Standard Remix By Differnet The Worst Taste In Music EP 2006
  15. The Room, Tarzana Freddie And The Trojan Horse EP 2008
  16. Closing Scene Pt. 2 Freddie And The Trojan Horse EP 2008
  17. David (Rice Twins Remix) David EP 2009
  18. In America Heaven's On Fire EP 2010
  19. Stay Off Route Never Follow Suit EP 2010
  20. Never Swallow Fruit Dub By Pistol Disco Never Follow Suit EP 2010

Here are a couple lost tracks. First up, "We Climb The Wire Fences":

And here's their song with the best title, "I Don't Need Love, I've Got My Band":

Friday, January 7, 2011

Sandy Bull: Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo

The life of the obsessive music geek is little better than the lot of the most desperate recidivist heroin junkie; what's worse, the addict has no methadone, no way to escape the disease discophilia: there's no cure. What normal people see as record stores, bins of LPs, or iTunes, are, to the addict, the source of untold riches and secret delights--dealers, basically--and no amount of willpower can pry the addict away from new doses, no single recording can slake the thirst for long. I went down this forking path long go, when, as a depressive and misanthropic teen, I discovered that the best way to illuminate the dismal vale of tears that is adolescence is to find records that shake off the grouchy. Many, many hundreds of small, glittering musical epiphanies later, I am no further along in the Sisyphean task which I set for myself at the age of seventeen: to find, and acquire, and enjoy every single Good Record and Good Song by Every Artist, Ever. But the good news is that I can sit down and play only excellent songs for days, if not weeks, on end, in the process turning bad days into better days and good days into great ones. The bad news is that discophilia has left me weary and broken; for every glorious fix, there is a botched reissue, an unfindable lost treasure, a pernicious record company, a brilliant band that breaks up, an geometrically-expanding list of new music to check out, and, perhaps most importantly, a bank account that says, simply, no more! In the context of such difficulties, I am happy to report that some discoveries make all the trouble and toil worthwhile, if only for those fleeting moments when to be a human being, alive and alert, is a pretty damn good thing.

Exhibit A: Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo by Sandy Bull.

Recorded in 1963, this sparkling gem of a record is the sort of album whose exquisite beauty and invention is so remarkable that you wonder how Sandy Bull is not a household name or the honoree of at least, I dunno, a commemorative postage stamp. I've been spending a lot of time lately trying to calm mental static with acoustic instrumental folk music. More placid and contemplative and airy than jazz, this sort of music--mostly from the 60s and 70s--is in my opinion one of the better ways to wrangle with your thoughts and rearrange your disputations. The most famous artisan in this genre is its ostensible inventor, the sainted John Fahey, whom I will discuss in another post. Fahey led me to Robbie Basho, and to Peter Walker, and Peter Walker led me to Sandy Bull, and now I am leading you to Sandy Bull. Using acoustic guitar, banjo, and electric guitar, often unaccompanied but sometimes with percussion (by Ornette Coleman’s drummer, Billy Higgins), Bull combines folk tunes, jazz, classical, Arabic, and Indian classical music, blurring styles and song structures; this is music beyond genre. The first side of the record is an astonishing 22-minute excursion which is more or less a raga, but with American jazz colors, and appropriately entitled "Blend"; I cannot think of other folk artists recording side-long instrumentals in 1963. Bull's prescience and creativity are even wilder, if possible, on side two, where he translates the usually-shlocky (to me, anyway) Carmina Burana into a eerie backwoods banjo hoedown. Other tracks are folk adaptations of classical and gospel music. Bull recorded a few more albums in the 60s and 70s (the second of which, 1964's Inventions for Guitar and Banjo, is a worthy successor to this one) before succumbing to drug problems. But Sandy Bull's music, a brilliant exercise in the combination of guitar and imagination, is an example of why I continue to devote my time to the search.

Here's "Carmina Burana Fantasy":

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Drums

Four bars into my first listen of The Drums' eponymous 2010 album, my first reaction was that Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner and their copyright lawyers should be contacted, for was I was hearing was a particularly shameless New Order ripoff. But after three more songs, they won me over. Yes, their sound—bouncy electropop bass, reverbed trebly guitar patterns, sing-songy Anglophilia—is derivative, but the trick with any act of stylistic necromancy is that good songs always trump accusations of larceny. I don't care if the Drums want to be the Brooklyn New Order, as long as they can write songs like these. The first half of the album is basically perfect, and only the slow one in the middle and maybe one other belonged on the cutting room floor. Lyrically, the songs deal with the usual Sad Love themes, but they also sing about dead best friends and surfing; in other words, confection pop neither too sour nor too sweet.

Here's "Skippin' Town":

And here's the heartwrenching "Book Of Stories", my vote for best breakup song of 2010:

Monday, January 3, 2011

Destroyer: "Kaputt"

The last full-length by Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, 2008’s pretty-good Trouble In Dreams, was the first Destroyer record which wasn’t a departure from the one that preceded it; it felt like an album of outtakes from 2006’s masterful Rubies. Bejar’s stylistic zigzagging has gone from bedroom 4-trackism to literary glam to mini-MIDI symphonies to sprawling indie rock, and so it may not be a surprise to learn that the new Destroyer is basically, well, disco. As an artist who likes to leave a breadcrumb trail through his oeuvre, Bejar dropped a few hints that this new record wouldn’t be Rubies, Pt. III. Those who bought Rubies on vinyl were treated, on side 4, to a 24-minute ambient deconstruction/remix of Rubies themes entitled “Loscil’s Rubies”, perpetrated by Bejar’s friend Scott Morgan, who records as Loscil. Then in 2009, Destroyer released the vinyl-only Bay of Pigs EP, which featured the utterly bizarre and wonderful 14-minute title track, which is more or less ambient techno over spoken word poetry (note: "Bays of Pigs" is included, in slightly edited form, on Kaputt); on the B-side was “Ravers”, a slow ambient version of “Rivers” from Trouble In Dreams. Fans used to Bejar’s militant stylistic iconoclasm didn’t bat an eye at such an experiment, but worries about when and if a new Destroyer LP would ever surface were not quite allayed by 2010’s Archer On The Beach EP, another vinyl-only slab with two very dark and bleak tracks that seemed to be a kiss-off to music and art altogether. So when a new full-length was announced, shortly after Archer On The Beach, fans were relieved, even though the press release contained more ominous notices (“The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today…” See here).

New Destroyer music is always cause for rejoicing here at Medium Rotation; that Bejar has not only made a new record, but an excellent one, is proof that his experimentalism continues to pay off. I described this record earlier as disco. And yes, there are basslines, and the LinnDrum, and backup singers, and (sometimes) choruses. More importantly, though, this record is warm and inviting, melodic and up, each track hummable if not danceable. In the press release, Bejar cites Bryan Ferry’s 1985 Boys and Girls and Roxy Music’s 1982 Avalon as inspiration, and fans of those great albums will see the musical similarities. He also cites 80s Miles Davis, and while that was not the trumpeter’s best decade, the trumpet on Kaputt is uniformly creative, gilding the album with jazzy filigrees. Kaputt is almost certainly Destroyer’s most accessible album, even though the lyrics are as inscrutable and abstract as ever. Lyrical nonsequiturs and dark poetic musings over a disco beat are not entirely unprecedented—check out Bejar favorite Nite Flights, the influential 1978 LP by The Walker Brothers, or Scott Walker’s 1984 Climate of Hunter, both of which sound like sonic precursors to Kaputt; likewise, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992) sound a bit dated today but have similar musical and lyrical themes, such as fighting the darkness with light. Bejar will likely continue his artistic struggle. In interviews (like this one at Paste Magazine), he is honest about the difficulties of his art. But Kaputt is a beautiful and uplifting record, and despite its difficult genesis, despite its ominous title (“kaputt” is German for “ruined, broken, finished”, and, hint-hint, “destroyed”), despite the lyrical puzzles which Destroyer fans will be vainly attempting to unravel and decipher over the next few months, it shows that Bejar knows that creation sometimes involves destruction.

Kaputt is out on January 25th on Merge Records on CD, LP and digital download.

Here's the title track:

Update: The vinyl version comes with an extra track, a 20-minute ambient excursion called "The Laziest River" which takes Eno and "The Boys Of Summer" gently downstream. If you liked the last two EPs, this will definitely float your boat.

Destroyer, "The Laziest River":