Monthly Archives: September 2014

“Treasure Plane”

oneida
Oneida
Secret Wars, 2004

Brooklyn’s Oneida live by no code. Anchored by the manic playing of drummer/singer Kid Millions, they’ve devoted their recorded output to exploring the furthest reaches of rock music, pushing the traditional band lineup about as far as anyone could reasonably expect. They’ve incorporated electronics, psych-rock trappings, krautrock jams, improvisation and more, and the breadth of their catalogue might be intimidating for the casual listener. While they’ve certainly released more experimental albums than Secret Wars, it remains their most open and accessible recording. “Treasure Plane” opens things up with vintage keys, warm distortion, and actually-quite-lovely, Lou Barlow-esque vocals. For a moment you might even be fooled into thinking you’re listening to Sebadoh, if Sebadoh recorded in a rusty dryer.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Treasure%20Plane.m4a]

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“So Much Things to Say”

bob marley
Bob Marley & The Wailers
Exodus, 1977

Bob Marley’s Legend is one of the best-selling albums of all time, a posthumous greatest-hits collection carefully curated not only to ensure maximum airplay but myth-building as well. That Marley truly became a legend in the years following its 1984 release is no coincidence, focusing as the album did on his most melodic, most peace-affirming tendencies. But Marley’s activism was rooted in real anger, and you don’t have to look hard to find examples on the albums released in his lifetime. For my money, “So Much Things to Say” is one of the catchiest, most pleasing songs in his catalogue, but I understand why it was kept off Legend; the first verse name-checks Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle, the chorus points a finger at forces of oppression at work in physical and spiritual realms. A bit heavier than “Could You Be Loved.”

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20So%20Much%20Things%20To%20Say.mp3]

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“Ghost of David”

Ghost_of_David
Damien Jurado
Ghost of David, 2000

I’m no musicologist, but I’m pretty sure “Ghost of David” only has two chords. They’re enough. When you’ve got a voice like Damien Jurado’s, simplicity is the highest virtue. The Seattle singer-songwriter has built his entire career – 13 solo albums and counting – on the discipline of less-is-more. While of late he’s been working in a full-band context with producer Richard Swift, many of the best songs in his catalogue feature little more than guitar and vocals. And rightfully so — this is a musician who commands attention even in the quietest moments.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/06%20ghost%20of%20david.mp3]

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“Fuzzy Reactor”

boris
Boris & Michio Kurihara
Rainbow, 2007

What to say about “Fuzzy Reactor” that can’t already be explained by that title? It sounds like what it is: a swirling, psychedelic jam with a krautrock engine. This is my favorite track off “Rainbow,” the collaborative album from experimental Japanese band Boris and guitarist Michio Kurihara. Like the best ambient/incidental music, it has the power to make you forget you’re listening.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/07%20Fuzzy%20Reactor.m4a]

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“Long Burn the Fire”

hot sauce
Beastie Boys
Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, 2011

Look, it’s the Beastie Boys, which means for the most part the rhymes here are a solid B. You know that going in, you deal with it. Occasionally on Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the group’s final album, you hear a line that makes you want to hit rewind — and usually it’s Ad-Rock — but for the most part we’re dealing with the typical off-time brags and boasts here. But that production, man. Holy shit, is this album underrated. Handling behind-the-board duties themselves, the Boys found a way to successfully update their sound for the 21st century: keyboards that crunch and slip out of meter, samples that enter the bloodstream, mics that distort without warning and killer guest appearances from Nas and Santigold. And yet after decades as hip-hop royalty with a commercial track record, nobody paid attention when the album came out. Nobody. Of course the public spoke up when MCA passed a year later, but Hot Sauce remains the least-respected record in the band’s storied career. Long burn the fire; reappraisal is due.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/08%20Long%20Burn%20The%20Fire.mp3]

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“Italy”

akronfamily3
Akron/Family
Akron/Family, 2005

That mix though! Listeners who fear compression are advised to steer clear of Akron/Family’s 2005 debut album, though not for the usual reasons. Far from the typical “Loudness War” salvo where extreme manipulation is used to shove an outdated radio rap-rocker’s hot verse right-up-in-your-fucking-face, the production on A/F boosts the levels on songs that would otherwise sound intimate in a natural setting. With this approach, “Italy’s” quiets get loud and its louds approach deafening. Again, not for everybody, but there’s something to be said for way those boosted lead vocals grab the listener on the early verses. This kind of thing used to be called “freak-folk;” for our purposes, it’s simply The Best Song You’ll Hear All Day.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/04%20Italy.m4a]

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“The Things I Did for You”

chenier
Clifton Chenier
Bayou Blues, 1955/1970

“Standing in the shadow of Clifton Chenier, dancin’ the night away…” For about two decades, this lyric from Paul Simon’s Graceland was my only exposure to Chenier, “the King of the Bayou” and one of the most prominent Zydeco musicians of all time. Shifting through a stack of used records last year, I took a chance on “Bayou Blues” and fell instantly in love. This take of “The Things I Did For You” was recorded in 1955, early in Chenier’s career, and serves as a perfect introduction to his sound. There’s the traditional blues structure; the soulful, Creole-inflected, top-of-lungs vocal; the confident ride/snare shuffle. The lyrics may be mournful, but taken on its own the music tells a different story. We should all be so lucky when we get the blues.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20The%20Things%20I%20Did%20for%20You%20(Take%201).m4a]

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“Progressive Three”

vince
Vince Staples
Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, 2014

What impresses me most about Vince Staples’ music is Vince Staples himself. The 21-year-old L.A. rapper isn’t just fierce on the mic; he demonstrates wisdom and substance that put most of his elders to shame. I was particularly affected by a recent Pitchfork profile where he went on record against the glorification of violence and commercialism in hip-hop culture: “A lot of music comes from a selfish place, but there’s no sense of self within it.” That same sophistication is evident not only on quote-unquote conscious material like recent single “Hands Up.” It’s just as obvious on low-profile mixtape cuts like “Progressive 3.” As a blog-buzzed, much-hyped Odd Future associate, Staples could be spending his moment trying to shock or stun the audience into submission. That he’s chosen to spend his capital building something more is inspiring.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20Progressive%203.mp3]

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“Summer Noon”

Tweedy-Sukierae
Tweedy
Sukierae, 2014

After years of being derided for his “dad-rock” tendencies, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has done the critics one better and recorded an album with his son. The result, a sprawling double record called “Sukierae,” is the most interesting music Tweedy’s made since the criticism started. We’re really coming full circle here. Many of the tracks share similarities with Loose Fur, his great mid-aughts side project with Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche. Others sound like folky outtakes from “Mermaid Avenue” or recent Wilco albums, as you might expect. The difference is Spencer Tweedy’s drumming, which lacks Kotche’s precision but shares his experimental tendencies. Fittingly, dad records the drums at near-demo quality and builds the music around them to match. Plaintive ballad “Summer Moon” best sums up the album’s gentle melancholy.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/2-03%20Summer%20Noon.mp3]

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“Take You on a Cruise”

antics
Interpol
Antics, 2004

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Interpol sure have a knack for terrible opening lines. “If time is my vessel, then learning to love might be my way back to sea,” and “Touch your thighs, I’m the lonely one,” are two of my personal favorite WTF lyrics in any band’s catalogue. And there are howlers like these all over Antics, the band’s sophomore album. “I’m timeless like a broken watch/I make money like Fred Astaire” kicks off “Take You on a Cruise” with a thud, but the music is so convincing the song succeeds anyway. This was the band’s great strength in their decade-gone heydey – instrumentals that shook even when the words were an afterthought.

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“Wharf Rat”

skull
The Grateful Dead
Skull and Roses, 1971

The Grateful Dead’s studio output is almost unfit for consumption — by me or anyone else. Despite their extracurricular proclivities, they were just about the whitest, squarest-sounding band in history, and studio sterility did them no favors. As I’ve gotten older though (I’m 33 now), I’ve developed a taste for their live recordings. Onstage they were squirmy, hardly controlled, often downright sloppy. And somehow that lack of discipline is what made them so appealing. Listening to albums like Europe ’72 or Skull and Roses, I sometimes feel like I’m hearing 5 or 7 or 9 dudes each playing in a different band at the same time. It’s the ultimate engagement, music as participation for both listener and band. That whole Deadhead thing makes a lot more sense now.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/10%20Wharf%20Rat.m4a]

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“The Wanderer”

zooropa_u2
U2 w/ Johnny Cash
Zooropa, 1993

History will prove there was nothing wrong with the albums U2 made in the ‘90s. Not just Achtung Baby but Zooropa and Pop too — nothing wrong at all. Sure, each album bore with it attendant overhype, ambition bordering on the unseemly, a too-healthy dollop of ego and of course … Bono, always Bono. But those who complained should’ve saved it. The real reputation damage would come later, as anyone who’s heard their last three albums can attest. No, ‘90s U2 had balls, and after scaling the pop world the decade prior, they’d earned the right to care more about art than charts. Take Zooropa closer “The Wanderer,” a synthy, quasi-Western spiritual with Johnny Cash on lead vocals, struggling to survive in an apocalyptic world without God. This was before American Recordings, before it was chic to love The Man in Black again. Historical proof of a time U2 when wasn’t afraid to take a risk — days that are long gone now.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/10%20The%20Wanderer.m4a]

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“Me Yesterday//Corded”

flylo
Flying Lotus
Until The Quiet Comes, 2012

Flying Lotus, a.k.a. Steven Ellison, is hands-down my favorite producer right now. His work touches on multiple, seemingly disparate corners of the exploratory musical universe: the bass and drive of post-Dilla hip-hop; the energy and fuck-it attitude of free jazz; the precision and programming chops of IDMers like Aphex Twin. “Me Yesterday//Corded” opens with muffled vocals, plodding keys and what sounds like a hydraulic chassis for a drum bed. At the halfway point, the whole thing explodes into the kind of woozy, beautiful beat science Ellison built his name on. As in his best work and that of the artists who’ve inspired him, any semblance of coherence is an afterthought.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/17%20Me%20Yesterday__Corded.m4a]

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“Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles”

beffheart
Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
Clear Spot, 1972

To call the Captain Beefheart catalog “intimidating” would be an understatement. I can’t think of a more imposing 20th-century popular artist; even those who adore Trout Mask Replica surely need a little time off between listens. It’s not them, it’s him – dude was brilliant, insane and avant to the end. Except for the handful of times he pretended not to be. On Clear Spot, he brought in the guy who produced The Doobie Brothers – those Doobie Brothers – to hammer his songs into a more commercial shape. It mostly worked, except for the fact that the album only reached #191 on the Billboard Top 200 (back when that mattered). Time has a way of sorting these things out though. “Her Eyes…” would prove to be one of the more durable, commercial songs in the Beefheart songbook, showing up on The Big Lebowski soundtrack and eventually landing the dubious honor of a Black Keys cover. You’ll be surprised how much you like it.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/10%20Her%20Eyes%20Are%20a%20Blue%20Million%20Miles.m4a]

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“Unmade Bed”

nurse
Sonic Youth
Sonic Nurse, 2004

Never was a huge Sonic Youth fan, at least not in the way many are. I was too young to hear the band in their critical prime, and when I finally decided to care, records like Daydream Nation and Goo felt dated to me. Perhaps enough time had elapsed for the group’s influence to be fully absorbed by guitar culture (and me). But I hold a soft spot in my heart for the Jim O’Rourke era, 1999-2005, when SY opened up its sound to incorporate cleaner, leaner, classic rock tropes. “Unmade Bed” would be a relatively tame showing for this band in any era, but that restraint works in the song’s favor; these are guitars that know exactly when to stand and when to stay seated. Daydream is in the Library of Congress, but Sonic Nurse is the album I’ll always remember.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Unmade%20Bed.mp3]

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“Temecula Sunrise”

bitte orca
Dirty Projectors
Bitte Orca, 2009

For those unfamiliar with Dirty Projectors, “Temecula Sunrise” may take a few spins to coalesce. At first, the elements don’t add up: double-time acoustic guitar that sounds like it’s being played by King Sunny Ade; hazy, half-time drumming that threatens to fall through at any moment; Dave Longstreth’s soothing vocal offset by searing female harmonies that attack from out of nowhere. But after several listens a picture emerges, and you realize you’re hearing some of the most adventurous pop music since Talking Heads. The songwriting is as clear and colorful as the cover.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/02%20Temecula%20Sunrise.m4a]

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“Rock and Roll”

edanbeauty
Edan (w/ Dagha)
Beauty and the Beat, 2005

I can honestly say I’ve never heard another record quite like Beauty and the Beat. Released in 2005 to great acclaim but almost totally forgotten nine years later, its colorful collision of psych-rock and hip-hop sounds as unique today as it did then. To date, no artist I’m aware of has attempted to build on the achievement, including Edan himself. Some things are best left as-is. “Rock and Roll” is the record’s most anxious moment, a fog of feedback set to a loping backbeat Hendrix would’ve destroyed. Fittingly, Edan shouts out a decade of classic-rock trailblazers in tribute before turning his ire toward none other than Lenny Kravitz. As if you needed another reason to listen.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/09%20Rock%20And%20Roll%20(featuring%20Dagha).mp3]

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“Other Side (Stuck Together Remix)”

atoms
Atoms for Peace
Single, 2012

You could make the case that Thom Yorke’s place in popular music is not what it used to be. Reaction to the most recent Radiohead record was relatively modest after almost two decades of unfettered praise. And while his surprise DJ gigs still rate as blog fodder, 2013’s The Eraser-meets-Afrobeat Atoms for Peace excursion got a similarly quiet reception. With attention drifting to younger artists, Yorke has quietly and convincingly branched out as a remixer. Here, aided by longtime producer Nigel Godrich, he reshuffles Amok standout “Stuck Together Pieces” as something darker, more thoughtful, and ultimately more rewarding. It’s the best Atoms-branded bit thus far, and proof that our favorite, most established artists still retain the capacity for surprise.

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“Intuition”

feist2
Feist
The Red Demos, 2001
The Reminder, 2007

Something a little different today: a look at Leslie Feist’s “Intuition,” from demo to completion. The original, pulled from 2001’s unreleased The Red Demos, is my favorite of all her recordings: a smoky, back-room lament whose plodding pace and spare instrumentation fit the defeated mood perfectly. Ironically, the final version — released on 2007’s breakout The Reminder — is even more sparse, stripped of everything but hometape-quality acoustic guitar and some light studio touches on the middle bridge and outro. The sad, subtle integrity of the song holds up no matter which version you’re listening to, a nice reminder of the artist’s skill as a balladeer.

Demo:

Studio:

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“About You”

teenage fanclub
Teenage Fanclub
Grand Prix, 2005

Epic, shiny, big-gesture power pop. There’s an art to this kind of thing, and as many have noted, Teenage Fanclub does it as well as anyone. The Scottish Big Star devotees continued to hone their craft after 1991’s Bandwagonesque, settling into a slower, more polished, more textured guitar sound. The intent remained, as ever, a pursuit of perfect pop song craft. “About You” opens Grand Prix with a simple, swinging hook and lush harmonies. The words might mean something or nothing at all, but they’re delivered with such conviction that you can’t help but agree. I love that fifty years after The Beatles, bands are still making music that feels this way.

[audio https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/14312140/01%20About%20You.mp3]

iTunes/Amazon

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“Pendulum”

fka twigs
FKA twigs
LP1, 2014

Hype is a weird beast. In the modern hipster-music economy, ruled over by sites more prominent than this one, it almost passes for currency. It certainly has the power to create careers, though it no longer seems able to sustain them. Soundcloud is littered with the bodies of buzz artists come and gone, MP3s strewn about like bleached bones. Hype can’t even guarantee quality per se; it can only tell you when other people are talking about something you haven’t heard yet. English R&B songstress FKA twigs is in the throes of the phenomenon now. The noise has been so deafening, I was reluctant to listen when friends first started talking about her last year. Precious, Pitchfork-ready images like the one you see above didn’t help. But I’m glad I pushed play. Put simply, her music strikes me as the logical next step in female-vocal R&B, the quantum leap we’ve been anticipating for some time. Remember Volta? If Bjork and Timbaland had hit it off, that collaboration might’ve sounded like this. Or if Aaliyah were still alive today … you know the drill. If this, if that. The point is, this is what’s in front of us now, and it’s deserving. I’ve chosen “Pendulum” for its beauty and for the way it makes me feel. For the way it connects the dots between Homogenic and One in a Million. For now, the future belongs to twigs.

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