July 31, 2007

Coming at the end of Harry Nilsson’s most self-indulgent, bizarre, and profane album, 1972’s Son of Schmilsson is an ode to what he calls “The Most Beautiful World in the World.”

Part Latin/South America rock song that Nilsson was so fond of (see “Coconut”) and part lush Disney-esque ballad, “World” is an assemblage of two disparate parts that on paper, should not flow in the slightest, much less flow as well as this track does.

The first part rolls and rocks along with some wordless backing vocals (“yiy, yiy, yiy, yuh”) and Latin percussion backing up Nilsson’s heavily accented lead vocal. Nilsson and Perry layer on instrumentation with electric guitars, a full horn section—even the sound of spitting in a glass of water is in place of a snare hit.

But at the 1:36 mark is the transition; a piano comes in and slow things down, only to give way to a quiet orchestra which begins to accent Nilsson’s every lyric. Soon a whole orchestra has taken over, and Nilsson is singing a straight-faced love song to, well, the world.

The listener pictures Nilsson sitting on a windowsill, looking out on a starry night, brightened by the glow of the moon, singing to his lover—the planet Earth:

You’re mountains when you’re mad
You’re rivers when you’re sad
And those deep blue seas
I love you for your snow
Your deserts down below
I love the way you wear your trees

And continues:

So when you get older
And over your shoulder
You look back to see if it’s real
Tell her she’s beautiful
Roll the world over
And give her a kiss and a feel

If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear the reaction from his mainstream fan base, people who had grown accustomed to “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin’” styled pop songs: “Did Harry Nilsson just sing about how he wants to fuck the Earth?”

Nilsson ends the song and album like an insult comic hightailing it to his tour van before the crowd can catch up with him: “So long, folks! See you next album, Richard!”

Indeed, Nilsson made some silly joke songs, some catchy rockers and he made some drop dead gorgeous ballads, but this was perhaps the only occasion on which he was able to seamlessly and effortlessly blend all three together.

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Stephen Belden | 9:00 am | Comments (2)

July 30, 2007

Roy Wood is known to the general public primarily for two things. The first is constantly getting confused with Ron Wood, the great lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones and the Faces. The second is being known as the guy whose musical vision was too overstuffed even for Electric Light Orchestra.

Wood founded the psych-rock British Invasion band the Move, which later folded into the Electric Light Orchestra. The Move was best known in the U.S. for the minor hit “Do Ya” (which was later covered and turned into a massive hit by a Wood-less E.L.O.), but Wood had the idea to take their art-pop style in another direction—adding orchestral arrangements to their pop songs using horns, woodwinds, and strings. Wood started E.L.O. with Move guitarist/future mega-producer/Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne and the other members of the Move while bringing in two new members: a violinist and a French horn player. The band recorded their eponymous debut (released as No Answer in the U.S.) and enjoyed a top ten U.K. hit with “10538 Overture.” By the time of the album’s release, the band had added two cellists and set out to recreate the sound on stage with a tour. However, when the band failed to immediately gel in concerts and the Wood/Lynne partnership began turning sour, Wood left the group, taking two of the players with him to form the octet he dubbed Wizzard.

Wizzard was not a huge departure from E.L.O.—it came off more like E.L.O.’s darker twin, what with Roy Wood’s face covered in pre-KISS war paint with multi-colored beard and hair, not to mention the insane “Top of the Pops” appearances which included band members and friends clad in various costumes wielding custard pies as they roller skated around the stage. However, Wood was not as concerned with melding the sound of the Beatles with classic music composers as his former partner Lynne; Wood was far more interested in nearly single handedly recreating Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”—the moniker ascribed to the ornate, echo-laden sound Spector originally made famous with recordings such as “Be My Baby” and “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” for girl groups like the Ronettes and the Crystals.

This became obvious with two of Wizzard’s early singles; the number one U.K. hit “See My Baby Jive” and the less successful follow-up “Angel Fingers.” In addition to being perfect clones of Spector’s sound, they were also written in the style of the earliest rock n’ roll hits, and could easily be mistaken for such.

It’s not far from the pumped-up oldies work that would be done a couple of years later by fellow Spectorhead John Lennon on Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats. The sound is so lush with all kinds of pianos, strings, back up doo-wop vocalists, all kinds of percussion, and saxophones galore, it’s a wonder it sounds like anything other than a barrage of noise. The fact that there’s not just order among this chaos but an actual beautiful song is impressive in and of itself. The songs were expensive (it was rumored that “Angel Fingers” cost as much as the entire Band on the Run album) with Wood playing many of the instruments himself, but it’s clear every penny made it to the records.

Despite a smash hit Christmas single (“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”), Wizzard would disband in 1975 after only two albums, but Wood soldiered on, following his eccentric interests in jazz improvisation and early rock n’ roll to varying degrees of success as a solo artist and producer—although he can rest easy knowing he’s never been the butt of a “Simpsons” joke:

Homer: Lisa, who’s your favorite Traveling Wilbury? Is it Jeff Lynne?

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Stephen Belden | 9:00 am | Comments Off

July 27, 2007

Stylus editor Todd Burns presents a mix of electronic music featuring new music from Philip Sherburne and Duoteque, as well as remixes from Trentemoller and Josh Wink…

01: Toni Rios - Psycho Circus [buy]
02: Duoteque - Logo [buy]
03: Philip Sherburne - Lumberjacking [buy]
04: Swoop - Black Market (Butch Remix) [buy]
05: Robert Owens - I Go Back (Wink Hypnotic Interpretation) [buy]
06: Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (Trentemolle Remix) [buy]

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Todd Burns | 3:00 pm | Comments Off

San Francisco’s Quarterbar is a remixer of many ideas. He’ll take an old Motown classic and strip it to its barest elements. He’ll transform a hip-pop party anthem into a dance pop track. He’ll successfully modernize an old-school rap record. He messes with genres, and often, he’s bold.

But it’s not his audacity that sets him apart from other remixers; it’s his instrument of choice. Rather than relying on FruityLoops or Reason, Quarterbar finds emotional resonance in an acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to pitch problems or tempo troubles, his tracks are often flawed.

Take his remix of Ciara’s “Promise.” Sonically, the introduction is quite mindblowing; in it, a flurry of guitar chords meld together and blend perfectly with Ciara’s cooing vocals. But after that, the song hits several speed bumps. Often, Ciara’s voice jumps ahead of the beat. And it’s hard not to cringe when an organic guitar note clashes with an ultramodern vocoder line. See, Quarterbar tries hard to make acoustic guitars sound futuristic, but, uh: they’re not! So, after three minutes, the track runs out of steam, having wasted its most glorious notes within its first fifteen seconds. Though it’s horribly unrefined, this remix is at least an interesting listen. Its concept is great; the follow-up is just way too sloppy.
Modern day pop songs aren’t really written as guitar tracks, so it’s not surprising that Quarterbar’s acoustic noodling is more suited towards classic R&B tracks than it is to new school jams.

Where Did Our Love Go?” is a Motown standard; everything about it—from Ross’s rich vocal performance to its euphoric handclaps—seems perfect, especially on first listen. But if you pay attention to the lyrics, something’s off. Why is Diana Ross singing such a heartwrenching story on top of a bouncy melody? The depressing words and the jangly chords really don’t fit together. So on this remix, Quarterbar changes the tone by dropping the tempo and incorporating a stark guitar line. Rather than relying on multiple instruments, he sticks to a simple snare drum, which sounds all the more poignant when it finally comes in. Sometimes, he’ll play with Ross’ vocals, but for the most part, this track stays simple and true to the original. With its powerful minimalism, this remix actually delivers on its premise, albeit a much less interesting one.

Ironically enough, from what I’ve heard, Quarterbar’s strongest remix doesn’t feature anything remotely organic. There’s no acoustic guitar, no drum kit, none of the original elements that drew me to his work. Instead, his take on Lil Wayne’s “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” sounds like it was made in a generic computer program. But still, it’s a fairly simple, highly-danceable track that in many ways wallops the original.

In his remix, Quarterbar ditches TMix’s fierce horn production and introduces a few simple keyboard notes. Upbeat percussion keeps both the track and the listener’s feet moving. In the original, neither Weezy nor Birdman decimated the beat. Here, the beat doesn’t try to overshadow them; instead it complements their tight flow. For this reason, it’s easy for both to sound more rhythmic and unstoppable.

So, does Quarterbar have his own style? Not really. But all of his best tracks share one thing in common: they value the vocals over the beat. And for this reason, they’re great.

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Chris Boeckmann | 9:00 am | Comments Off

July 26, 2007

When the Submarines released Declare a New State!, their 2006 debut album, it often seemed as though more focus was being placed on the story behind the record than the record itself.

Granted, it’s a good story.

John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard were two solo artists that crossed paths within the Boston music scene. Eventually touring together and contributing to each other’s bands, they fell in love and were inseparable for four years. Unfortunately, when the couple attempted to settle in L.A., their relationship came to an end.

Like most break-ups between the musically inclined, it inspired both Dragonetti and Hazard into a period of energized songwriting. Despite their separation Hazard went to Dragonetti when she needed a place to record. Together in his studio, the two shared the material they had been working. Recognizing that the similar themes of lost love and regret were about each other, Dragonetti and Hazard rekindled their professional and personal relationship. When they married, a mutual friend mastered Declare a New State! as a wedding present.

Regardless of how this beautiful collection of electro-folk found its inception, the songs themselves are able to hold their own. Take for example the duo’s broken-hearted, “This Conversation.” Leading off with the quiet strumming of an acoustic guitar The Submarines establish a state of isolated mourning, one that seems to deliberately wish to go unnoticed. Even when Dragonetti occasionally interjects his own love-worn vocals along with the hum of a harmonica, its sound is something subdued, as though he’s trying not to wake someone sleeping in the next room.

But then, like some severe clearing of the throat, Dragonetti breaks his encased shell with the boom of several low octave piano chords, singing, “And I saw my shadow next to yours slowly fade away.” As glitchy distortion effects thread their way throughout the song with a ghost-like quality, it captures the longing anyone can feel after losing someone important: the feeling that you’re not really there.

As sad as they often sound, many of the songs off Declare a New State! imparts some residual optimism. This is particularly evident on the album’s closing song, “Darkest Things.” With Hazard taking over lead vocals, delivering a quaking siren’s call (likening herself to a more fragile Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley), the song itself glides. Supported by a melodic guitar picking and steady roll of percussion, you can’t help but get the impression Hazard is smiling in spite of her own slow, melancholic tone. This is because she is only waiting to recite the song’s last three lines. As a viola accompaniment sways like a clock pendulum, Hazard fades out singing: “I’d have waited a lifetime for a sign / Only to fall apart when love arrives / but we’re coming home.”

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Mike Hilleary | 9:00 am | Comments Off

July 25, 2007

If Centro-matic/South San Gabriel’s Will Johnson is nothing else he’s incredibly prolific. To put it simply, he makes Ryan Adams look like Terrence Malick. Really he has few peers in this area, save for maybe ex-Guided By Voices’ frontman Robert Pollard. But Johnson has a leg up on both Pollard and Adams—almost everything he touches turns to gold. While Pollard may release ten songs of mediocrity for every classic these days, Johnson tends to release ten good-to-great songs for every classic (and that’s probably an understatement). The man is simply a songwriting machine.

Even more impressive is the extravagant arrangements Johnson uses—especially on the South San Gabriel records. Besides the usual alt. country instrumentation of pedal steel, nylon-string guitars, B3 organs, violins, etc. there are harps, grand pianos, and generally a grandiose air to the whole project. So it’s that much more remarkable when he strips it all down, as he did on his second solo album, 2004’s Vultures Await.

While not quite as stark as his first solo album, Murder of Tides, Vultures Await is still nowhere as lush as some of his other works. If one were to beg for a comparison, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is as apt as any, not only because of the general stripped-down feel of the album, and not just because some of these songs sound downright Lennon-esque, (not the least of which is the beautiful “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming,” with gorgeous lyrics that describe a love that almost seems to defy description: “I would steal a thousand smiles just to know that you’ve been laughing.”) No, the comparison lies in Johnson’s ability to speak directly about his feelings, without gussying anything up; much like Lennon found himself finally able to do on songs like “Mother” and “God.”

The closer, “Nothin’ but Godzilla” is the speaker telling his lover how he wants her there for everything that happens in his life—from the relatively mundane (“If we had nothing but this greyhound, would you help me train him?) to the most ridiculous of circumstances (“If we had nothing but Godzilla, would you help me fight him?”). It seems a wee bit cringe-worthy on the surface, but to hear Johnson deliver it, it’s an amazingly direct way of expressing love.

Closing Down My House” features one-side of a lover’s quarrel (“It’s true I’m watching what I say around you”), before the couple give in to one another with the line: “If you’re calling off your dogs, then I’m calling off my dogs too.” The song is buoyed by a lone guitar and programmed beats that beautifully gives way to live drums for the last section, almost triumphantly.

But even on the loveliest of love songs, Johnson’s well-worn warble offers an indescribable pain to the listener, offering undertones that suggest, along with the stark instrumentation and production, that these songs are about past loves that have long since left him to fend for himself.

Is it so evil to wish for more heartbreakingly beautiful music from this man if it means he actually must have his heart repeatedly broken first?

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Stephen Belden | 9:00 am | Comments (2)

July 24, 2007

It’s been suggested that in the eighties, ugliness and perversion as an aesthetic became a prized commodity among ex-punk rockers for its scarcity, and consequently, bands like Big Black and Swans et al. mined some hideous musical depths because they knew no one else would do it for them. Concurrently, the base and the rude felt more essential, even more spiritually awake, than whatever profligate glitter-pop dominated the era. We might be experiencing such a famine of filth presently, but the pendulum has a way of swinging back. Ever since David Yow joined Qui, noise rock has been sneaking back into the public consciousness. Evidently, what the world needs now is scree, sweet scree. I, for one, couldn’t be happier because it means more bands like Black Elk. Black Elk are not the word made flesh, but they are the flesh made fleshier. For anyone who may have dozed through Pissed Jeans last album, I submit to you Black Elk’s self-titled debut.

They’re a Portland, Oregon group who sound as if they subsist on truckers speed, the Jesus Lizard, and Twinkies. If you want proof listen to the panoramic beatdown “Eyebone.” One track is called “Dylan Klebold.” They’re crass, man, in bad taste. Let’s be on the same page about this: It isn’t metal, it isn’t hardcore. It’s a bunch of angry fellows with an ugliness fetish. If they were your roommates, Black Elk would use your CDs as coasters, steal your condoms, and make your toothbrush mysteriously smell like asshole. Who took a dump in this empty pizza box and then left it on the table? Black Elk did.

The songs on their debut album are crossbred, post-hardcore bastards spawned from Converge’s frothing structures and the Dazzling Killmen’s chops. Whiffs of late-period Black Flag come through in atonal chugging and feedback. Riffs uncoil lustily like swamp roots. The, uhm, “singer” rasps and bellows like a man possessed, and sometimes says “Hey! Ho! Hey! Ho!” in a really exhilarating way, as he does on “Cuddles.” The entire affair is revelry in devilry that has me thinking about experiments using sonic frequencies to create severe behavioral disturbances. You may take comfort in the fact that moshing alone in your room is pretty much involuntary. So charge up your tazers, grease the pigs, fasten your dentures and shave your daughters because this business is comin’ ta gitcha.

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Charles Robbins | 9:00 am | Comments Off

July 23, 2007

Stylus previews this week’s upcoming releases…

01: Prince - Somewhere Here on Earth, from Planet Earth [buy]
02: Tegan and Sara - The Con, from The Con [buy]
03: Tiny Vipers - Forest on Fire, from Hands Across The Void [buy]
04: John Vanderslice - Time to Go, from Emerald City [buy]
05: UNKLE feat. Josh Homme - Restless, from War Stories [buy]
06: Robbers on High Street - The Fatalist, from Grand Animals [buy]
07: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Down Boy, from Is Is [buy]

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The styPod | 3:00 pm | Comments (1)

Sometimes the best thing one can do is listen to a song out of season. There’s something magical about gazing upon beauty at its weakest and least desirable. It made sense when Sparrow House, AKA Jared Van Fleet of Voxtrot, released his Falls EP in the dwindling months of 2006. But listening to it now and stomaching “When I Am Gone” in these sweltering months is as disorienting as it is spellbinding. Elliott Smith—clearly one of Sparrow House’s influences if the finger picking, vocal doubling, and aptly placed piano are any indication—wasn’t meant to be heard in the splash and sunlight of summer, and neither was this song.

But here it is. Unnatural. Unripe. Too tart to savor let alone swallow.

All the right fall chords are there—the C to Am transition, an E for declining temperatures. Each note was tenderly chosen and plucked for harvest, but in this July haze they’re a midday cup of warm milk. My throat is coated in that wounded voice, that solemn sound: “You were the one who could break me with the whisper.”

My head lolls as I sit in swim trunks wishing I knew what Sparrow House knew about crafting effective, simple arrangements. It’s one thing to layer a song, blanketing one instrument over another to form something complex and warranting several listens; it’s one thing to compose a song that is incredible and yet caters to the lowest common denominator. “When I Am Gone,” however, is a masterpiece because it goes above and beyond both of these aims. The track was so thoroughly meant for one season that it can’t help but take one aback (and thus have an impact) throughout the year’s remaining segments. One way or another, one time or another, “When I Am Gone” is bound to leave a bruise, and in no way is this a complaint.

I spoke with Jared during the recent Voxtrot tour. He thought his Sparrow House songs were too slow. Sweating post-performance in the heat of the unairconditioned venue, I thought how nothing could be further from the truth. His tracks weren’t slow; they were perfect for when they were even if all of them weren’t perfect for what they were. And sometimes that’s what people needed, a right song for a wrong moment in life, something to tuck away a year to slumber.

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Rahawa Haile | 9:00 am | Comments Off

LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends (Franz Ferdinand Cover)

Todd Burns | 8:30 am | Comments (1)

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