Monday, June 25, 2012

A good song to become obsessed with.
Neutral Milk Hotel   In the Aeroplane Over the Sea  (1998): 85%

Like most albums I pursue in curiosity and interest these days, I pursued this magnum opus from Netural Milk Hotel by reading Pitchfork Media’s list of the Best Albums of the 90’s. It was high up there, and I was completely oblivious to it prior, so I listened to it at work. If it’s ranked number 4, it must be one hell of an album, right? Upon first listen, I was not immediately impressed. Now I realize that it works best in enclosed spaces, like a tiny and dimly lit room. Considering lead songwriter Jeff Mangum wrote songs in a supposedly haunted closet, it makes perfect sense. It’s the subtleties that separate good albums from great brands making the best ones .

I’m listening to it now in my new headphones, and even though I had played it all the way through at least 3 times at work, I didn’t realize until now just how much I underestimated this album. I looked up the band, particularly for stories about Jeff Mangum writing bits from their first album in a haunted closet (which would explain its claustrophobic appeal. By the way, what entity would haunt a closet?), and the consequences of sudden fame eventually led Mangum into a nervous breakdown. What is it about art from unstable people that can attract acclaim? No doubt they perceive the world in a unique way, but how many of these people can make an album like this that sounds stable and traditional, but rapidly unravels and sounds exactly like the product of sessions in a haunted closet?

To offer some idea what it sounds like, I’d say there are Nick Drake elements mixed with the immediacy of Pavement. Folk rock, no doubt, but also has guitars blasted with distortion, an appreciated calling card of the 90’s. There’s also a Wes Anderson quirky quality about it with its use of horns, trumpets, accordions, and even bagpipes. Even the album cover nods to future Wes Anderson projects. But as much praise I can offer for the songwriting, lyrics, and artwork, what is it about Mangum’s yelling that I find difficult to grow into? No doubt he’s singing heavy subjects like Anne Frank and Jesus on “Holland, 1945” and “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 and 3” respectively. The centerpiece, “Oh Comely” is a stream of conscience lyric that is sung in Mangum’s yell that threatens to go out of tune. Stream of consciousness seems to be prevalent in the album and it’s vital to the imaginative quality of his string of words. But still, what is it with his voice that I’m not accustomed to? I doubt it’s a voice that is meant to evoke happiness in the first place.

Nevertheless, the music like this deserves to outshine any flaw people like me perceive in this piece. It has a quality of indie bands I didn’t entirely achieve through bands like Pavement or Arcade Fire. Thank goodness for review sites like Pitchfork who offer not your run-of-the-mill, standard ‘best of’ mainstream albums consistently while Pitchfork recognizes this as one of the best albums of all time. I understand why mainstream would shun something like this, but if you’re thinking that I am coming across as some young emo/hipster, you’re missing my point: I love any and all music that can offer me a journey into another mind that doesn’t necessarily offer an accessible sound or relies on a specific gimmick. I devour albums like this when I find them. I’m off to go hunting again.

Music: 9/10
Lyrics: 9/10
Length: 8/10
Meaning: 8/10
Significance: 10/10
Overall Impression: 8/10   


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

M.I.A.- /\/\ /\ Y /\ (2010): (52%)

In his 4.4/10 review for Pitchfork Media, Matthew Perpetua pondered as to whether this album was half-assed or half-baked. On a superficial level, these terms are synonymous, but there is a difference. Half-assed implies that every track had the potential to live up to more respectable material on previous albums (in M.I.A.’s case, Arular and Kala, which are named after her father and mother, respectively), but was ultimately upstaged by the more alienating aspects. Half-baked, on the other hand, basically means that among the tracks that do hold up well, there are others that could have been left out, or at the very least, modified in such a way that would make them less alienating. As I listened to /\/\ /\ Y /\, or simply Maya, Andy Kellman’s AllMusic review reminded me that this album leans more towards half-baked as he wrote, “There is a brilliant—if brief—EP here.” While this album does make the effort to be at least halfway good, halfway is still about 50%. Considering she wrote the majority of grand slams like the aforementioned critical hits, settling for half does not flatter her being.

Nor does having a scathing profile published by Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times help either. In it, M.I.A.’s credibility as an inspiring rebel suffers blow after blow as she discusses genocide-like conditions in her native Sri Lanka, and portraying their living conditions as third world…as she eats truffle flavored French Fries at a New York restaurant. As for genocide, “Kadirgamar told me, echoing the sentiments of others, ‘but she only made the situation worse. What happened in Sri Lanka was not a genocide. To not be honest about that or the Tigers does more damage than good. When Maya does a polarizing interview, it doesn't help the cause of justice.’”*

In a nutshell, the NY Times profile was a case of a controversial and incendiary artist getting bit in the ass by her own words and lifestyle. For those who love her music and respect her lyrics, to see what she did in response (post Hirschberg’s phone number on her Twitter) further plummeted her “witty activist” credibility to the point where this album had better be on the same level, if not higher, than her two predecessors if she can expect to maintain a level of dignity.

But, as I said before, this album disappoints. However, to an audience of fans who don’t listen to her music to pick it apart and read between the lines, this album is a suitable follow up to Kala. To fans like me who want to know how exactly M.I.A. is going to continue her bombastic legacy, then yes, I am going to pick it apart and compare it to other works.

“The Message” opens with keyboard tapping noises, much like the ones I’m experiencing now as I type this, and then has thunderous bass come out of left field as she spouts some paranoid paradigm about how our bodies are connected to the internet which is connected to the government. Sure, the beat may be alright for an introduction, but this conspiracy theory comes close to outright justifying Hirschberg’s dislike for M.I.A. The true opening track, “Steppin’ Up,” sounds annoyingly clustered and lost in an array of power tool fury compared to the swagger and danceable qualities of “Bamboo Banga.” It also has a dubstep bit in it, but more sounds like it are sure to follow. M.I.A. previously flirted and hinted towards dubstep, thus making the fairly monotonous genre somehow fresh. On Maya, it, along with her use of Auto-Tune, becomes very stale, very fast. And likewise with Auto-Tune, sure, she used it as more of an attraction on previous albums. Now, she utilizes it as a crutch on songs like, “Tell Me Why,” “XXXO,” and the closing track, “Space.”

Which sucks because “Tell Me Why” could actually belong on that brilliant and brief EP. I could actually ride down Clinton Street in my black Mustang with pride as I crank this song with my windows down, but that fucking Auto-Tune instead makes my journey to work terribly awkward. “Meds and Feds” uses a riff courtesy of Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, but ruins it later in the song by trying to match their sonic oblivion, which instead comes across as just plain irritating. So, no, “Meds and Feds” does not belong on this EP. “Born Free,” however, deserves a slot the most because she actually uses a sample (courtesy of Suicide) to its fullest potential, even though a dirty mind could easily replace the first word of the title with something more humorous. “Story to Be Told” is alright in its own merit, and I am evenly divided on whether “It Takes a Muscle” deserves a slot too. “Teqkilla” plainly runs on too long, and has an awkward mix, along with “Lovalot.” So yeah, this ‘brilliant’ EP is indeed kind of brief.

So what’s the lesson to be learned from this? If you are going to talk in incendiary terms, make damn sure they aren’t going to come back to haunt you and subject your music to intense scrutiny. Perhaps I am judging this album rather harshly, but considering there hardly isn’t a track on Kala I don’t like, to find patches of fluff on Maya is comparable to a surrender to American electro-dance counterpart, Lady Gaga. Whatever the production process of this album was like, I just hope it’s what M.I.A. needed to do to get whatever it is out of her system, and improve on the next album.    

Music: 5/10
Meaning: 5/10
Length: 5/10
Significance: 5/10
Lyrics: 6/10
Overall Impression: 5/10

*taken from the New York Times article as written by Lynn Hirschberg. Please don’t sue me.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I can't believe I'm just now getting around to watching the infamous Good Morning America interview with Charlie Sheen. I don't think I've laughed this hard in a long time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Slint- Spiderland (1991): (86%)

Currently in Fort Wayne, we’re experiencing a drought. I can’t remember the last time we had a decent rain shower that lasted for more than 15 minutes. I can barely even remember the last time we had clouds that acted like they wanted to storm, but instead scattered a few drops like an old man with prostate problems. I am especially disappointed by this because I love the rain. I love the way it smells, I love the way it feels on my skin, I love the way it sounds as it pitter-pats on my window, I love the shade of darkness that accompanies it, and above all I love the sense of peace and calm I receive whenever the clouds turn gray and release their load of accumulated precipitation. If I know I’m disappointed, I can only imagine how disappointed the local farmers are with this seemingly perpetual string of 80-90 degree days with plenty of sun, little humidity…and no friggin’ rain. These days, I don’t even bother listening to the weatherman hype a 30% chance of a scattered thunderstorm.

Which really sucks because I recently discovered this record. To listen to a grim record like this on a perfectly bright and sunny day makes no sense whatsoever. Even listening to this record at night with a clear starry sky doesn’t produce the desired effect. Imagine going to an amusement park for the sole purpose of sitting in the parking lot and watching Requiem for a Dream within the confines of your car on a computer. That’s not to say that listening to this record is a one-way ticket to a bipolar disorder diagnosis (even though at least one of the members of the group had to be institutionalized during the making of this record). There’s plenty of imagination and awe-inspiring material within, just not the kind you’d expect. For instance, the opener “Breadcrumb Trail” starts out innocent enough (relative to the other tracks) with an inviting chord sequence and a tale about an adventure at a fortune telling booth. But then something wonderful happens: it loses this innocence and descends into a sinister grin laced with guitar feedback and hopeless wailing.

This is basically the template for all 6 tracks on Spiderland, Slint’s most acclaimed work. While it basically follows the same formula, occasionally it changes up moods between quiet and somber ambience to harsh and loud riffs. More often than not, it does favor the former sound, thus backing up my claim that this is a record suitable only for miserable looking days. But even the louder portions suggest that a storm needs to be in the background in order to achieve the effect the band intended. Perhaps what conveys this best is the overall production quality led by Brian Paulson, who essentially is a Steve Albini understudy who employs most everything Albini did on their previous album, Tweez. However, I am sure that if Albini produced this record too, it would sound too much like Tweez, which didn’t have quite the same charisma as this does.

I believe it’s called Spiderland for a very good reason. Simply being that the way the songs are written, it is easy to imagine David Pajo and Brian McMahan’s fingers moving up and down the guitar necks much like the way a spider moves its legs up and down a wall. The great thing is that each song is representative of this thoroughly creepy trait. The photo of the spider on the back cover alone speaks volumes for the songs themselves, along with the lyrics, which range from adventure to isolation, anti-social themes to social anxiety, mania to depression, and just to impress your literature professors, “Good Morning, Captain” is dedicated to the gothic imagery of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” To play this for an English major audience would be a stirring experience. The climax of that song alone would be enough to develop a newfound appreciation for what seems like boring and pretentious literature classes.

To repeat some of the best lyrics here would rob you of the brimming imagination and surprise that awaits should you choose to listen. I know that sounds lazy, but trust me, these guys didn’t endure a difficult recording process just so that critics like me could take away some of the magic they created. Like I said, just because this is a depressing, if somewhat disturbing, album doesn’t mean that depressed and disturbed people are its sole target audience. However, considering it only got an indie release on Touch and Go (same label that released the moreso disturbing Butthole Surfers magnum opus, Locust Abortion Technician) maybe it more or less is a test of its prospective audience’s courage to try it. If your curiosity permits a listen, you shall either emerge from the experience rewarded or shaken. Do you dare venture into Spiderland?   

Music: 9/10
Lyrics: 9/10
Length: 8/10
Meaning: 8/10
Significance: 9/10
Overall Impression: 9/10
Yet another reason why we should all be geeked out for Christmas:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012): 3/10

Whenever I hear of a television show that I like is being made into a full length feature backed by a prominent and respectable studio, naturally I tend to generate interest in it. After all, if someone deemed it necessary to give its creators a shot at the silver screen, then odds are they thought that for a good reason. Namely being that the show has a cult following that is bound to generate a respectable legacy. Oh, and the potential for massive profits too.

However, upon hearing that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim were given this golden opportunity, I expressed both confusion and amusement. Because while Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! is indeed an awesome show, I wasn't really sure why they deserved a chance to bring their warped and nonsensical vision to a mass audience. Seeing as though their show belongs to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim clan, I would have figured that a studio head would have picked a more promising show like Metalocalypse or The Venture Bros., among more qualified candidates. Then I remembered that Heidecker and Wareheim belong to the online comedy troupe, Funny or Die, the brainchild of comedy stars like Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow, that have the ability to bring whoever they want to a big screen. Thus proving once again that it's all about who you know that gets you in high places.

But rather than venturing into high places, I was horrified to see that Tim and Eric had plummeted to a low that, in a way, destroys everything the original show stood for: atavistic, yet expertly utilized graphics, nonsense jokes and annoying noises that were actually funny, and a strong sense of perplexing curiosity that has spellbound a cult audience for years. Going into this film, I knew they were going to incorporate an actual plot that might amount to something, be it a message or just a good time. By the time the fake credits of the easter egg ending rolled, I instead felt that something was taken from me. You see, the reason why the show worked so well was that they were sketches, because that's what Tim and Eric were best at: putting on an 11 minute show that demonstrated their talents as avant-garde comedians. With this film, we are subjected to a severely half-assed version of an already half-assed show, stretched to what seems like an unnecessary amount of time. Sadly, this unnecessary amount of time is actually about 90 minutes.

I am going to attempt to describe the plot as briefly as I can to minimize the painful memories I have of this film. We learn via a narrator that Tim and Eric were given a billion dollars by Tommy Schlaaang (the kind of name you would expect from Tim and Eric's creative prowess), head of the Schlaaang corporation. They instead frivolously blow the billion dollars, so that by the time they had to edit what useful footage they had, they ended up with a 2 minute movie that stars a fake Johnny Depp, and is about diamonds. Furious with the results, Schlaaang does everything he can to threaten Tim and Eric into repaying every last dime that was wasted. In their attempt to do so and avoid jail time, they re-open a failing (and to be honest, beyond all reasonable rescue) shopping mall. To go into subplots at this point would be an exercise in futility and undermine my duty as a critic.

Matter of fact, this movie aims to undermine any expectation a loyal fan of the show may have had going into this thing. Hell, Tim and Eric undermine their own talent as comedians by attempting to pull off a plot they probably knew in the pre-production stages wasn't going to work anyway. And if you're a fan of the show going to trash me with something along the lines of, "That's the point man! Tim and Eric never make sense!" Well, that's sort of my point. Tim and Eric are professionals at not making any sense, and for them to try to bring together an actual plot in their ADD fashion is just not the way to go for their movie. You didn't see the Jackass guys wrap a few stunts around an elementary plot in none of their 3 movies. Mostly because they knew that doing so would be a pointless strategy for the fans of their show.

Hopefully I have driven my contempt of this movie to the point where you enjoyed my painful critique more than you can ever hope to enjoy this movie. As for Tim and Eric, it is fully apparent that they had a blast making this movie, but sadly I can't say the same for anybody who was curious enough to warrant a viewing of this film. And for the celebrities who made cameo appearances, I'm sure they'll survive this relatively low-profile work. But how Steven Spielberg of all people got dragged into this mess, I'll never exactly know, because to a world-renowned filmmaker like him, even an offer of a billion dollars isn't nearly enough to sacrifice his dignity for Tim and Eric's sake.     

Monday, June 11, 2012

White Zombie- Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds (1996): (47%)

UUUUUUUUUUUUWWWWWWWWWWEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH dissolves slowly into Charlie Clouser’s (of Nine Inch Nails fame, and that guy who did the music for the Saw films) woozy wall-of-dance interpretation of “Electric Head Pt. 2 (The Ecstasy),” which starts out with Zombie singing the chorus with all the nasal sigh of a teenage girl in a sloppily processed remix of Zombie’s already nasal-southernish tinge. For good, ill, or the money, this album exists. The massive success of singles like “More Human Than Human” and “Super Charger Heaven” are why the conception of this album was justified. Like every track on this remix/ripoff of one of my personal favorite albums, Astro Creep 2000, it has a good quality that gets weighed down by the mere notion of hiring the most arrogant DJ’s (Dust Brothers excluded, naturally) to experiment with Zombie’s vocals in ways you don’t really want to hear anyway. Of course, like all equally flawed tracks, some are more equal than others. I know I have a bias towards the Dust Brothers, but there’s a reason for that. Their interpretations of “I’m Your Boogie Man (Sex on the Rocks Mix)” and “Grease Paint and Monkey Brains” are some of the best mixes on this album. And yes, P.M. Dawn’s mix of “Blood, Milk & Sky” is tastefully seductive too. Given that the title is Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds, I’d imagine this is/was a favorite among DJ’s at strip clubs. Maybe the release of the album itself is a marketing test meant to see how many hardcore fans White Zombie has; really, who among them would purchase this album? As far as I know, it was probably White Zombie’s last collaboration. How’s that for bittersweet irony? *Editor’s note: it was actually, “Ratfinks, Suicide Tanks and Cannibal Girls” off of the Beavis & Butthead Do America soundtrack. I should probably also warn the wary consumer at this point and mention that if you haven’t heard or don’t already love Astro Creep, and hate dance club music (I don’t want to imagine what this sounds like on ecstasy), you will more than likely hate this album, especially if you decide to try to listen to it all in one sitting. But it is another vital part of my childhood, so I have to acknowledge that it has been with me throughout the years and damn it all if I’m not overly sentimental. That, and it’s got nude girls in 60’s style pictorials that are quite tasteful in their homage. So it’s got that going for it too. Going back to its possible fishing for hardcore White Zombie fans, I’m pretty sure putting a smoking hot nude girl in a hammock would allure any guy with hormones. Otherwise, (besides the mixes I praised earlier) there’s little reason to include this in your collection.

Music: 5
Lyrics: 5
Length: 4
Meaning: 4
Significance: 5
Overall Impression: 5 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beck- Mellow Gold (1994): 92%

Who among you reading this review, would be willing to compare Beck to Bob Dylan? While Beck is anti-folk, he is more or less the “three-decades-too-late doppelganger” to Bob Dylan. After all, they both did have about the same musical prowess when they were in their early 20’s.
There is a lot to be said about it though. Just like Bob Dylan arrived exactly at the right place in exactly the right time in the early 60’s, Beck inadvertently did the same in the 90’s. “Loser” became a hit on the radio right around the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, thus making Beck one of those musicians who were picking up where Nirvana left off in the alternative scene. Also consider the coincidence of Beck signing to DGC, Nirvana’s label.

But is it accurate to call it alternative? Consider the year of this release, 1994. In February, Stereopathetic Soulmanure was released on Flip, an indie label (and no, not Limp Bizkit’s label when they were signed with Interscope) that featured eclectic and experimental tastes done with primitive equipment. A week later, Mellow Gold was released. Then finally, another indie release called One Foot in the Grave in June which is in the same vein as Stereopathetic Soulmanure, but instead Beck channels Bob Dylan so clearly he emulates without plagiarizing. As he smiles sardonically on “Pay No Mind (Snoozer),” (among other tracks on this album) you can’t help but laugh along with him, “Give the finger to the rock and roll singer/ as he dances upon your paycheck/ the sales climb high through the mountain pale sky/ like a giant dildo crushing the sun.” No, out of respect and for the sake of the album, we will not call it alternative, and upon reading the track listing, you should be able to tell why. Titles like, “Fuckin’ with My Head (Mountain Dew Rock),” “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat),” “Mutherfuker,” “Steal My Body Home,” or ”Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997” Perhaps Beck is anti-alternative too.

In all the music Beck made in 1994, intentionally or not, he seemed to have put all of the worthwhile material on Mellow Gold. Even its name has a smirk of wry honesty. Either way, Mellow Gold measures up to a lot, and it provided a solid exposition to Beck’s career on a major label. This is essentially his more accessible roots before he learned a thing or two from the Dust Brothers on the follow-up, Odelay!.

And what an underappreciated album it is. While it gained praise of critics across the board, why was its impact so silent? Sure, “Loser” played on radio and MTV, but seriously, where are the proper accolades for this album? Rolling Stone may haven given it five stars in a retrospective review, but why did they sort of brush it under the rug and never mentioned it again? I’ll admit, I was slightly nervous when I hit play and let Beck provide good background noise for my video game. Since “Loser” is the first track, I knew the real adventure would be in the tracks to come. Then “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” came on; just as cool as “Loser.” With each passing track, I expected at least one of them to not be as memorable. I reached the end of the album dumbfounded by its unconventional accessibility (if there is such thing), and not because I was taken aback by the random computer noise that sneaks up about a minute after the capper “Blackhole.”

It was just pure talent; the ability to know exactly what chord should be next and when. Sometimes it’s hip-hop, sometimes it’s country, sometimes it’s drone, and only rarely is it alternative. Other than “Loser,” it’s Beck’s way or no way.  

Clearly, this album is 80 different kinds of idiosyncratic confessions of a self-proclaimed loser folk singer who never leaves the company of his acoustic guitar. Along with the other assortment of instruments he can play, he blends in so many to fit the need of the song. Even better, his lyrics contain the kind of irony that Alanis Morrisette was hoping to achieve on Jagged Little Pill. Only, they’re all over the album. Except in “Blackhole,” which seem to harken back fond childhood memories. “Soul Suckin’ Jerk” sounds like more life experiences from Beck’s life as a slave driven minimum wage worker. “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat),” begins with a crude tape recording of what sounds like his truckdrivin’ neighbors downstairs having an argument:

“You’re a drunk!”

“Yeah, I’m the fuckin’ drunk, but you’re a lousy low-life who can’t do nothin’ for himself!”

Then Beck starts in with a wayward sounding scale, sounding like a scowl. I can almost see Beck choking the neck of his guitar during the chorus as he growls through grinding teeth.

Which brings me to my next point: why is this the only Beck album with profanity? Are his other works too good for it? By cursing, Beck almost feels sort of a pressured to go out and try to shock people with another gimmick. While the music can stand on its own, it’s ultimately Beck’s choice of words that will determine if the music is worth listening to. Does it make you feel clean or dirty by the end? Pleased, or embarrassed? At 47 minutes with 13 songs, you can guarantee it’ll be worth it in one way or another.  All the songs are well-paced, well-placed, and well-played. I still don’t know why Beck hasn’t received more well-known acknowledgement for this one than an album like Odelay! To me, they are kind of the same, but with one difference: roots with ingenuity.

Lyrics: 9/10
Meaning: 8/10
Significance: 9/10
Music: 10/10
Overall Impression: 9/10