Monthly Archives: January 2013

One Way Trigger by The Strokes

The cover for Comedown Machine, the latest record from The Strokes.

Ok, I’m not yet sure what I think about this. Here’s why.
New Strokes material is always released amid a barrage of internet opinion – derisive, exuberant, contemplative and more. It is almost impossible to judge the music on its own merits. I’ll try to stay observant and neutralish. But full disclosure, The Strokes were THE band for me in high school.

The Strokes arrived at a weird time for music. Everything was colliding and imploding all at once. Is this it? dropped in late August 2001 in the UK, and in early October 2001, which bookend the 9/11 attacks. They hailed from New York, at a time when people wanted to hear vibrant New York voices. They sounded vintage, even as a new band. Their initial single was pre-released by a stalwart of the old-guard music press NME – but not on one of NME’s signature compilation CDs, but experimentally as a digital download.

They blew up just as, and just because, the music business – that is, the $20-per-CD-pseudo-monopoly-old-boy music business – was starting to tank. Executives were willing and able (and desperate) to throw money at a band, especially one like the Strokes, who had the promise to really move units. This was also the same time that taste-making blogs like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, Brooklyn Vegan, and a host of others really started to rival print media like Spin, NME, and Rolling Stone. Pitchfork, for example, only started doing daily updates two years earlier, in 1999. By 2001, the general public had really started to express themselves and really explore the internet, and move away from AOL, email, and porn (the sturdy bedrock upon which the rest of the internet was built). Napster was gone, but copycats like KaZaA, Morpheus, Limewire, and a bunch of others rose up to fill the public’s insatiable desire for 1-song-at-a-time free downloads (man, remember how long that took?!?). 2001 was pre-facebook and myspace, remember.

The Strokes, for a couple of months, were all things to all people. They were voices from the hip underground of battered city looking for champions. Both old and new waves of music criticism proclaimed glowing adoration. The power of internet buzz had taken off, but high-speed downloading had not yet crippled the mainstream music industry. And somehow, with perfect timing, they exceeded the hype and released a great, incredibly successful pop record. One that was simultaneously cool and popular, retro and fresh – and one that will haunt everything that they ever do.

An early release from what the internet has discovered will be their fifth record, Comedown Machine, One Way Trigger seems like it might finally be a step in the direction that fans hope and expect, though it’s tough to judge from the single tune. They’re doing what they do best: this song is a stylish experiment in a genre as old as they are. Julian Casablancas is pushing his voice into falsetto, which I like better than I expected. Frenetic synth-y arpeggios and a mechanical beat drive the track, a sound reminiscent of their work on Room on Fire and First Impressions. I’m excited to hear the rest of the record.

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Laura by Bat for Lashes

Whenever I’ve tried to write my own songs, I’ve encountered the same problem. With so many instruments, effects processors and sounds at my disposal, how do I know what is enough? When do I stop adding layers of sound? When does the music I’m trying to make become just noise? This is especially problematic for a bedroom recording artist like me, because I don’t have a flesh-and-blood band that I’m writing for. Songs could be two layers or 20 – their live playability matters only in the abstract.

This is debilitating in two ways. The first I’ve already mentioned – unconstrained, I can keep adding layers and layers indiscriminately, until I’ve made a mess that’s near-impossible to mix and master. The second is that I end up spending way too long on every single song, and  stop seeing the song’s promise and focus only on the flaws. In both cases, I lose motivation quickly.

Sometimes what I’ll do is create some artificial constraints for myself: the song must be able to be played live by a 5-person band, the song must contain no more than 2 guitar tracks, the song must be written and recorded in one day. All of these methods work at hauling me out of the doldrums of song writing,  but they can leave me with this nagging feeling that the song I’ve finished isn’t fully realized – that the minimalism I’ve imposed onto myself and my song has done the song a disservice.

I think this is the struggle for songwriters. If unrestricted, how do we reign in maximalist impulses?

Natasha Khan is the woman behind Bat for Lashes. She’s a multi-instrumentalist with a flair for the grandiose, very much in the mould of Kate Bush. Bat for Lashes songs typically collide disparate sounds: tribal beats and Enya-style string synths, jittery guitars and fantastical lyrics typically dominate her compositions. Her usual genre-gymnastics don’t prepare the listener for the sparseness of her arresting ballad, Laura.

Laura, uncharacteristically, is an exercise in restraint. With little more than her quavering voice and simple aggregated piano chords, Natasha Khan delivers this devastating song about the glamourous but fragile Laura, lost in the excesses of a never-ending night life threatening to leave her behind. The singer keeps pleading that Laura is “more than a superstar”, but she’s forgotten how to be anything else.

The waltzing lilt of the melody is familiar even on the first listen: it at once feels timeless. The chord changes feel inevitable and necessary – giving them incredible weight , especially on the chorus.

Bat for Lashes may be known for tireless experimentation, but Laura is perfectly unadorned.