Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Weird Ceiling by Zammuto

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Laurie Brown. For me, her show is constantly exciting. Never before has the radio been a way for me to discover new music. Instead, it’s been a way to kill time and distract myself as I drive, a chance to sing along to half-remembered lyrics and melodies that somehow exist, often unwelcome, in my subconscious. Of course, there’s the unique joy that comes from the surprise spin of something truly great – and I love this part of radio. However, I’m finding though that the bar I set for “greatness” slips lower the more time I spend in my car. Before, I’d roll down the windows for true favourites like New Order, Harry Nilsson, or Lou Reed. More and more, I’m finding myself cranking up “Hungry like the Wolf” or “Come on Eileen”.

Laurie Brown’s show The Signal offers something totally different for me. I rarely recognize what I’m hearing, but I’m always interested. The music she plays demands attention.

I have not digested music this way before, ever. By the time I was looking for music of my own, the Internet had ascended to become the media source of choice. Don’t get me wrong: this has been great for so many reasons. New, small, under-funded bands can be heard by millions, labels no longer have an iron grasp on distribution, and spheres of sonic influence have expanded to encompass the globe. However, every new song, new band, is always presented pre-judged (pitchfork 7.3), pre-analysed (derivative of joy division), and slotted into an ever-expanding genre catalogue (chillwave, slowcore, nu gaze, etc. etc.). Listening to this radio show is exciting for me because I can make up my own mind.

So here’s Weird Ceiling by Zammuto. I heard it on The Signal. What do you think?

Dawned On Me by Wilco

The Whole Love is not the best record that Wilco have put out. However, for almost any other band, this late career collection would be a great achievement – the kind of singular sound that signals a newfound maturity and vision. With past albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a pitchfork 10.0), it’s hard to accept anything short of genius from this hardworking band.
When I saw Wilco on their tour to support Wilco (The Album), I recall that the band was still getting used to its new incarnation as a six-piece. When they played some of the sparser songs from older records like Being There and Summerteeth, their attempts at finding things for all the members to do sometimes resulted in clunky arrangements and just too much going on. Not that it wasn’t an impressive concert. New songs like Impossible Germany, with a five or six-minute guitar freak-out interlude by the sorcerer Nels Cline stuck in the middle, and Bull Black Nova as well as the title track really shone.
Some have complained that Wilco are sounding too comfortable, that they’ve lost some of their edge. I disagree, I think on The Whole Love  the band has really locked into its six-piece sound, and are producing some of the best pop songs of their career. The record on the whole does feel less groundbreaking than some of their earlier work, but this is partly due to the brood of imitators that now compete with Wilco for our alt-country attention. The standout tracks are many: Art of Almost, I Might, Born Alone, and this one Dawned On Me.
This is a classic Wilco song, a twisted pop song that explores darker themes with a sunny melody. “I’m taken by the sound of my own voice/Voices in my Head” Jeff Tweedy croons in the first verse. Later, he  admits that “I regret letting you go/ Sometimes I can’t believe how dark it can be.” This tension between a dark topic and traditional pop song structure is classic Wilco. They let this tension inform the music as well – the song begins with the quiet whine of guitar feedback, and the organ plays a little dark-circus riff intermittently. This tension is most effectively encapsulated two minutes into the song when a wild, overdriven guitar solo by Cline is interrupted and cut off by Tweedy whistling the verse melody. This little musical joke reenforces the feeling that the protagonist of the song is making a conscious effort to keep the crazy inside, to keep the song a sunny pop number, but he’s failing. It’s beginning to fall apart at the seams.

Bonus: For the video, Wilco partnered with king features to produce the first hand-drawn Popeye cartoon in 30 years! With Wilco as characters! It’s a real gem.

Lightshow by Plants and Animals

photo credit: Caroline Desilets

I first saw (and heard of) Plants and Animals as part of a Pop Montreal Showcase at Guelph’s Hillside Festival in 2007. I remember them being a mostly instrumental guitar band. They were a very musical three-piece, and had lots of countermelody and acoustic noodling. They fleshed out these ideas out on their first full length Parc Avenue, which was a sparse affair. The seeds of their new sound was planted in songs like Faerie Dance, which built from softer beginnings into full on rave-ups by song’s end. Plants and Animals followed that record up with La La Land, an album startlingly full of songs ready for the dance floor. Extensive touring tends to turn even bedroom artists into party starters, and these guys are no exception. La La land was one of my favourite records to drive to of 2010. Standout tracks like American Idol, Kon Tiki, and The Mama Papa are still part of my rotation.
Lightshow is the first advance single from The End Of That, set to hit a record store near you on February 28. Immediately apparent is Warren Spencer’s increasing vocal confidence and range. His plaintive timber isn’t for everyone, but I find it really works. Lyrically, the song explores more sophisticated images and ideas than on previous records, though there are a few awkward platitudes: “it’s desperation for everybody/ it’s wishful thinking for the whole human race”. However, Lightshow is also more immediately accessible than the songs on La La Land save perhaps The Mama Papa.
The guitar playing is fantastic, in turns restrained and spastic. The lyrics allude to natural disasters like earthquakes, and the song itself builds like an avalanche. It’s almost chorusless, and there’s the obligatory wordless melody in the coda which I still can’t seem to get enough of in Canadian rock. I’ll be spinning this one pretty constantly, and eagerly awaiting the rest of the record.

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