Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

A problem I’ve been encountering with Drop 22 is that I review albums that not a lot of people have heard. People most often say, “good review, but I haven’t heard (blank)’s music.” Well, if you think I was being obscure before, just read the rest of this review.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is considered by the uber-music-knowledgeable to be one of the best indie non-mainstream albums ever. I had heard their name whispered when I got into The Decemberists and Arcade Fire, and had been meaning to check them out for a long time. I’m glad I did, because what was at first a turn-off slowly became something magical, interesting, and really kind of beautiful.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea isn’t like any other album, and its creator, Jeff Magnum, seems to eschew any musical traditions and norms. Even its packaging is pretty non-standard, featuring no words on the cover or back sleeve, a fold-out CD booklet, and inaccurate lyrics with no indication as to where one song ends and the next begins. Neutral Milk Hotel is part of the Elephant 6 music group, which, for lack of a better term, can only be described as a musical collective. It consists of a bunch of bands, many members of which are also members of other bands in the Elephant 6 family. It’s not a record label, and not all the bands record in the same studio building or under the same producer or group of producers. All the bands are firmly entrenched in the “indie-folk-blues-rock” category. That genre is very hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it. Neutral Milk Hotel started, as many Elephant 6 bands did, as a solo project. Gradually, other musicians came on board, and it was a very fluid, chaotic thing. It wasn’t a matter of “we are going to start a band,” as many other bands are. For In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the band’s lineup was as solid as it was going to get, but it still featured a few songs that were just Jeff and an acoustic guitar.

So what’s so great about this album? Few people have actually heard it, which isn’t surprising, since it was very poorly marketed. The recording of it was even pretty low-budget, and I get the feeling that it was really just a matter of Jeff and the band playing stuff, and someone happened to turn on microphones and get it on tape. In truth, I don’t know what makes this a fantastic album, but it is. Something about it just inexplicably drew me in. Once it did that the first time, I didn’t even like it that much. But the same thing that drew me in kept me coming back. It is excellent background music while you’re doing something else (like writing a review, heh), and also stands up to close scrutiny, as it presents many interesting things on repeated listens. It doesn’t use normal instrumentation, doesn’t stick to the verse-chorus-verse model at all, and challenges what you think music is supposed to sound like and what it’s supposed to do. But in a weirdo off-kilter way, it makes its own sort of sense. If you just let it spin in its own non-circular way, I think you’ll find it’s a beautiful, heart-rending trip that you weren’t expecting.

The “Carrot Flowers” suite, which takes up the first two tracks, is wild and unpredictable, switching from mood to mood in a schizophrenic way. Then comes the title track, the most accessible and pop-oriented song on here, which isn’t saying much. It’s also one of the prettiest songs to be released in the 90s by any artist. Holland, 1945” features dark and inscrutable lyrics (I think some of the song is about Anne Frank, but I’m sure the whole thing is about death), but has the most excited and bouncy tune of the entire album. Also, it’s impossible to separate it from “Communist Daughter,” another achingly beautiful song. It’s a logical extension of “Holland, 1945,” even though it has an opposite feel to it. “Oh Comely” is another song that’s so gorgeous it kinda hurts. It’s 8 minutes long, but almost all of it is just Jeff and his handy acoustic. It doesn’t seem like much at first glance, but Jeff sings with so much love, softness, and heart-breaking loss that it’s impossible to ignore. Lastly, there is “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two,” another song that’s mostly just voice and guitar. It’s really these moments that make for the best music. Oddly enough, it’s when an already minimal album subtracts to almost nothing that it really shines.

There is not a single song on this album that I now consider to be sub-par. Every single one flows into the next with such grace and aplomb, and there are very few errors. Granted, the chaotic and formless approach of the album makes it an uncomfortable experience at first. Like I said, it doesn’t sound like you think an album of music should sound, and doesn’t behave in the normal way. But if you just give it a chance, it will reward you very well.

Prime Cuts:
I’m not even gonna try this. The songs bleed together so much that it’s a little meaningless to pick out individual ones. It was hard enough to describe them.

22 Rating: 19

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Just when you thought you had reached the limit of human ingenuity, Radiohead proves you wrong again. Honestly, who’d have thought of releasing a new studio album completely on the internet, and letting the consumer decide the price? That enterprise flies in the face of a long history of capitalism and consumerism, and makes you (or me, at the very least) think, “They can’t do that! …Can they?” They can, they did, and they were hugely successful doing it. Mind you, “successful” is not the same thing as “$ucce$$ful.” I admit I got the new album In Rainbows the day it came out for £0. I imagine most people were like me, thinking that if the album could be had for nothing, why not? But success is not measured in money amounts, but in number of people who have heard, and like, your music. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea, and there’s no one better than Radiohead to give it a try.

In addition to being an innovative marketing scheme, In Rainbows is a thick and challenging album, as any Radiohead album is expected to be. It starts off with a distorted synthesizer percussion sound, the opening of the song “15 Step,” which has a 5/4 time signature. Indeed, odd beat numbers are not new to Radiohead; I’m still trying to figure out “Pyramid Song.” No, what makes this song unique is that it’s infused with an energy and optimism not heard from the band in a while. In comparison to the rest of Radiohead’s work, “15 Step” is downright gleeful. Then comes “Bodysnatchers,” where the energy becomes even more pronounced. They haven’t done music this caffeinated since “Electioneering” on OK Computer, and that was 10 years ago. Finally, Radiohead has connected with that youthful spirit that possessed them on Pablo Honey and (to a more measured degree) The Bends.

With “Nude,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “All I Need,” things slow down and get calmer. In general, the album floats between heavy and soft, balancing the two in such a way that you don’t even notice where one ends and the other begins. Not every song works, though, and at only 10 tracks, that’s costly. “Faust Arp” is really too short to make much of an impact. “House of Cards,” which is gentle and whispering, is also pretty bland. However, it’s worth noting that it starts off with the lyrics “I don’t want to be your friend / I just want to be your lover.” While this may seem like standard fare for any other band, this represents a completely new direction for Radiohead. Songs about actual human relationships?!? Surely you jest!

“Reckoner” is relentless and doomy, and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” moves forward in a way that most of the album does not, refreshing you near the end. Closing the album is “Videotape,” which sounds straight out of the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions. It’s malleable, haunting, and kind of beautiful, in a very Radiohead way.

As always, In Rainbows takes a few listens to really gel. Except this time, I thought it was pretty good on my first listen, and by the 10th listen, I realized it was almost genius. All other Radiohead albums are very good in an individual way, but this one is special because it covers all the bases, sounding like a beautiful amalgam of every album. It’s a unique animal among Radiohead’s discography, but I realize that every Radiohead album is unique, which only reinforces my statement about this being an amalgam. In Rainbows leaves me wondering where Radiohead can possibly go after this, but I do it with excitement. I can’t wait to see what brand new territory they’ll push themselves into next.

Prime Cuts:
Jigsaw Falling Into Place

22 Rating: 18

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Just like last year, I plan to participate in National Novel Writer's Month. Because of that, I won't really have time to blog. Wish me luck, and I'll be back in December!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jimmy Eat World - Chase This Light

Jimmy Eat World, the little band that could since the mid-90s, have trekked to areas their emo and punk rock contemporaries wouldn’t go. They’ve dared to evolve and grow when the rest of the emo world was reveling in their pain and suffering. Emo is, after all, the domain of the adolescent, and that description doesn’t fit Jimmy Eat World anymore. It hasn’t for a while. Unlike Dashboard Confessional and My Chemical Romance, they’re not trying to pretend they’re still sad, tortured and tormented.

JEW’s last album, Futures, was a near-perfect mix of intensity, softness, danger, and cosmic beauty. It was kind of an accident, sure, but I think anything that marvelously wonderful has to have a certain amount of “we weren’t aiming there, but okay” to it. Chase This Light seems to have gone back to the frenetic energy that made Bleed American so wildly successful. While the beauty of Futures was splendid, it’s probably good that it was left behind. An album as spectacular as Futures really can’t be duplicated. Something as simple as the straight-ahead approach of Bleed American can, though, and the band does a pretty good job with Chase This Light.

The album starts off with a bang with “Big Casino.” Though this is really the best song on here, it doesn’t feel as though JEW has spent their wad early. “Big Casino” features great and thoughtful lyrics, and an exciting beat that borders on nervous. Like I said, the measured and subtle tone of Futures is generally gone, though one can see it has been learned from. “Let It Happen” sounds a lot like the previous track, but not as hooky. In general, this album is more simple-minded and focused than previous efforts. “Carry You” and “Dizzy” slow the pace down just slightly, trading acoustic guitars for bombast, though they retain that insistent beat that permeates almost the whole record. The only slow and moody song on the record is “Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues,” which has an echoing undercurrent that lends it a sense of danger on the edge of your senses. This is a very nice break to an otherwise one-note record, and were it not there, that would get very old.

“Feeling Lucky” and “Electable (Give It Up)” are slight throwbacks to JEW’s early days, only a lot less sloppy. Many people have lamented that Jimmy Eat World has gotten more polished and professional, leaving behind the youthful exuberance of their past. The way I see it, with that youthful exuberance came sloppiness and mess. Yes, they played with fervor, but they played like total amateurs. I like this tighter, cleaner approach much better. Not only do they sound better, but the fervor isn’t gone at all. “Electable” proves that they can play with a glossy sheen and still kick out the jams like they used to. Producer Butch Vig (he produced two grunge classics, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Nirvana’s Nevermind) definitely likes the glossy sheen, and uses it liberally.

“Here It Goes” seems a little too youthful, and comes off as immature. And “Firefight” is a good song, but demonstrates that JEW is a little afraid of branching out. Futures was treated with as much scorn as praise by critics (I honestly can’t imagine why…), so they’re obviously retreating a little. While that’s fine for now, I sincerely hope they go back to the melancholy exploration of Futures. As it stands, they seem to have taken a step back. Chase This Light is a bit of a let down after that excellent album, but I don’t think it would have been if it followed Bleed American; it’s a logical extension of it. Luckily, they were stepping from something great to something good, and it wasn’t a very big step down. Also luckily, Smashing Pumpkins have taught me that my favorite bands very often don’t live up to my expectations, and that’s okay.

Prime Cuts:
Big Casino
Gotta Be Somebody’s Blues
Feeling Lucky
Always Be

22 Rating: 13

Friday, October 12, 2007

They Might Be Giants - The Else

One of the biggest cults in current activity is that of They Might Be Giants. They have a fan club, a vibrant internet life including a wiki, and throngs of geeky college students, as well as seasoned music veterans, who absolutely adore them. Ever since I heard them, I’ve been hooked. Part of the secret to their success is their very close connection to their fans, and they’ve never let them down.

The Else is their first full-length adult album (they had two children’s albums before now, No! and Here Come the ABCs) in 3 years, and they’re clearly adapting to the times quite well. The Else enjoyed an iTunes-only release long before its CD release, letting a few people in on it, mostly avid fans who pay close attention. Indeed, this is not new to the band; their album Long Tall Weekend is only available online. More than just a novelty this time, the product is quality, too; The Else is one of their best.

At the start, it seems as though TMBG has acclimated to the norm enough that they can sound just like it. “I’m Impressed” is a driving, slightly techno rock song, which would fit in with songs you would hear on pop radio. “Take Out the Trash” is a straight-ahead rocker with a danceable beat, but no TMBG frills other than the vocals. So after the first two tracks, it leaves you wondering if They Might Be Giants have left silliness and quirkiness behind them. But then we have “Upside Down Frown,” which restores the listener’s faith in TMBG’s left-field aesthetic. This song, while nothing special in the scope of the band’s entire body of work, is a beautiful archetype of what makes TMBG them (I also very much appreciate the obscure Cream reference).

Even so, The Else is more straightforward and simplistic than their previous work. That’s not a bad thing, however. The Giants wear simplicity very well. Like John Henry and Factory Showroom, this is pretty muscular and hard-edged. It also deviates from the TMBG norm by having a standard amount of tracks (just 13). Many fans felt at first like they were being cheated out of something by not having lots of songs, but I actually like the Giants’ “quality over quantity” approach. Factory Showroom is a close cousin to The Else (both are 13 tracks, and both rock pretty hard), and that album had a very definite sense of album identity that other albums lacked. Most other TMBG albums were little more than collections of good songs. The Else has more cohesion, and gives a more complete feeling when it’s over. This is at the cost of track numbers, but I think it’s a more than fair trade.

“The Cap’m” features a fantastic groove, and demonstrates the uniqueness of TMBG’s lyrics. “With the Dark” is very cool with its genre-shifting, but there isn’t a lot in the song you can grab a hold of. It’s also the strangest choice for a debut single in… well, ever. Then there is “The Shadow Government,” another full-steam-ahead rocker. When I say this album rocks pretty hard, understand my meaning. It’s not particularly intense, but what intensity is there seems to go a long way. The Else is peppered generously with horns, and that only increases the classic rock and roll feel to the entire album. “Withered Hope” is another danceable tune, and probably the hardest-rocking on here, using the horns to the best degree.

Up until this point, The Else is satisfying only one aspect of the TMBG experience, and that’s musical excellence. The oddity aspect has been approached, but ultimately neglected. Well, the last 3 tracks have silliness in spades, and move the album to a nice middle-ground between classic rock and cartoon rock. By the ending track, “The Mesopotamians,” you are marveling at the long journey you didn’t know you were on between “I’m Impressed” and this. “The Mesopotamians” sounds like a theme song for a Josie and the Pussycats kind of show, only on a whole lot of cough medicine. Also, you can’t get the frickin’ song out of your head.

The Else is a strong effort from a strong band, one who has remained strong for 21 years. And like it should be, none of TMBG’s fans are surprised that they put out a great album; it’s par for the course. That seems like a very high standard to live up to, but They Might Be Giants do it without even seeming to try. Let’s hope they do for a long time after this.

Prime Cuts:
The Cap’m
Withered Hope
Take Out the Trash
The Mesopotamians

22 Rating: 15

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

James Blunt - All the Lost Souls

The first time I heard James Blunt, I heard him on the faceless medium that is radio, and I didn’t know his name was James. I swear to God, I thought he was a woman. And I thought he was one of those weepy, pathetic women at that. When I saw the video for “You’re Beautiful,” my jaw hit the floor. “You gotta be f***ing kidding me!” He wasn’t a weepy and pathetic woman at all… He was a weepy and pathetic MAN! The correct word for the experience is “cognitive dissonance.”

Needless to say, I don’t really respect James Blunt. Not allowing Weird Al to parody one of his songs (even though he did it anyway) really soured me on him. In my opinion, if Weird Al chooses you to aim his darts at, you should consider it an honor. At the very least, it means your record garnered the attention of a very musically savvy person. I sorta grew to like “You’re Beautiful,” if I imagine Ben Gibbard singing it instead. The idea of appreciating beauty just for the sake of it, without thinking what that beauty means as it applies to you, is very appealing to me. But as far as I’m concerned, James Blunt’s reason for existing ends there. Everything after that is unnecessary, and is in fact detrimental.

“Everything after” consists of his brand spankin’ new album called All the Lost Souls. The cover image of a photomosaic of James’s face seemed like an egotistical move, till I read that James actually requested that a photo of him NOT be used for the cover, and his art people played a little practical joke on him. “1973” is the first track and first single from All the Lost Souls, and it sounds like the rebirth of disco. As such, it’s one of those incredibly ugly babies, the ones their parents think is adorable. I can just see James Blunt getting his disco freak on to this song, complete with polyester pants and multi-colored lasers. Is this an image that makes anyone else want to vomit?

“One of the Brightest Stars” has a bit of a Paul McCartney chord progression going on, but I never really liked Paul all that much; I’m a John man myself. “I’ll Take Everything” is the closest James comes to his voice actually working in a song. The soft piano mixed with the insistent beat is kinda nice, and I appreciate the Holy Spirit reference in the lyrics. “Same Mistake” starts off with the “weepy and pathetic” thing in full force, but after a minute or so turns into a decent melody.

“Give Me Some Love” and “Annie” qualify for the Stuff I Wish the World Hadn’t Been Exposed To list. “Give Me Some Love” is a lame attempt at intensity, fraught with clumsy drug references. In “Annie,” he’s as crass as to ask “will you go down on me?” It’s an attempt at irony, but he doesn’t even try to sell it as such, so it just comes across as sleazy. “I Really Want You” is fairly catchy, but has an achingly stupid title and lyrical hook. “No matter what I say or do / the message isn’t getting though.” Oh, I think it is, James, and it’s time for it to stop.

A problem that the entire album has is that it’s boring. At the heart of it, it’s a lot of catchy hooks bloated into full songs until they’re hardly recognizable as what they were. There wasn’t much to work with at the beginning, so James just repeated himself and repeated himself, revealing his lack of originality. He’s completely a one-trick pony. Mind you, he’s not like Anberlin or Garbage, exploring a genre and mining it for all it’s worth. Rather than mining pop, as James Blunt has the opportunity to do here, he swings his mattock two or three times and says, “that’s good enough.” Well, it’s not good enough for me, and I hope the album sales say it’s not good enough for a lot of other people. I didn’t really expect ol’ Jimmy to deliver the goods, though. I’m surprised that castrated choir boy voice of his has carried him this far. Can we get to some good music, please?

Prime Cuts:
I’ll Take Everything

22 Rating: -12

Friday, September 21, 2007

Guster - Ganging Up On the Sun

For 16 years now, Guster has been one of the most consistently good bands of the decade-plus. They’ve also represented a friendly, home-grown, crunchy granola type of aesthetic; they could be neighbors knocking on your door to gift you with vegetables grown from their garden. They’ve carried that very early 90’s attitude into the new millennium, and no one questions it because they wear it so well. Even so, they have evolved in their own way, so that their sound is never boring, but always Guster.

2006 finds them with a new record, Ganging Up On the Sun, and continuing to evolve and get better at their craft. When they started, they used all hand drums (bongos, congas, and the like), and had no traditional drum kit to speak of. That tradition went out by their fourth album, Keep It Together, and I’m pretty sad to see it go. However, they started using the kit in such a way that I didn’t even notice until my third or fourth listen to that record. Ganging Up On the Sun basically picks up where Keep It Together left off, with a little more cynicism and darkness thrown into the mix. Darkness is not an unfamiliar thing for Guster; their first hit was “Airport Song,” one of the doomiest and most disconcerting tracks of the 90’s. On the average, however, Guster’s music falls into the category of “bright and hopeful” rather than “dark and depressing.” Even “Airport Song” wasn’t depressing. It just had this slightly evil undercurrent to it that made your skin crawl.

Ganging Up On the Sun starts off unlike most other records of this day and age. The typical pattern for other bands is to come storming out of the gates, but Guster chooses to sneak in while your asleep. “Lightning Rod” is a quiet and whispered intro, minor-keyed and troublesome. A good way to think about it is that “Lightning Rod” is like waking up to a soft alarm clock at 4 in the morning while the land is still dark, and the track that follows it, “Satellite,” is like getting in your car, still half-asleep, and driving down the highway just as the sun is coming up. “Satellite” starts off with a solo acoustic guitar, but eventually escalates to a point where you would be fully awake, being exciting and rollicking. “One Man Wrecking Machine” (a single), is basically a rehash of the Keep It Together track “Homecoming King” (not a single), though a first-person and much more cynical treatment. Both songs present a very bittersweet feeling to looking back at high school, and suggest there is a very fine line between reminiscing and living in the past.

“The New Underground” is about as intense as Guster gets, outshining even the Keep It Together track “Red Oyster Cult.” “C’mon” shows that life isn’t nearly as bad as Guster is making it seem. This song is bright, exciting, and invigorating, and gives the album a balance that serves it very well. If “C’mon” is the best on here, it’s seconded very closely by “Dear Valentine.” This appears to be what “C’mon” was balancing, as it’s a beautifully soft and melancholy song. “Hang On” closes the album competently, and says that the tough times are almost over with; that's a pretty comforting message.

Throughout their five albums, Guster has very few bad or even meh songs. They don’t have a plethora of great songs, either, but they’ve gone their entire career being consistently good, which is more that a lot of bands can hope for. It’s a little surprising, but Guster has quietly, calmly, and patiently built up one of the best discographies since their inception. Ganging Up On the Sun is not as good as Lost and Gone Forever or Keep It Together, but that just shows how great those records are. My message to everyone is this: if you're not into Guster, you should be.

Prime Cuts:
Dear Valentine
One Man Wrecking Machine

22 Rating: 14