Monday, March 31, 2014

Does it Rock? The War on Drugs

As I type this, it's late March 2014, the end of a shockingly good quarter year for music. I have been dreadfully lax in my duties as occasional music blogging guy by not writing up every single album I've bought since the year began. Selfishly, I keep telling myself I'm not done with them yet, that I need to keep spinning them and digesting them before I can truly appraise their greatness. In truth, I'm in a rut, despite and perhaps because of this great music.

Most of what I've listened to this year is by bands I have enjoyed for years and mostly written about on my old site. And there are plenty left over from previous years that I swore I would write up someday -- some of which ave released follow-ups since then (Dum Dum Girls were not an isolated incident in this.) Each of these bands is worthy of praise, but I worry about stagnation. I worry that, having spent three years establishing a group of favourites, I now have a stable of artists that I will buy, and can remain satisfied without venturing out of that perimeter.

Well, look me in the eye and tell me that I'm satisfied.

In a way, that means SOTW was a success. The point of it was to finally crawl out of my "only classic rock" phase and learn how to find new music for myself. I learned. And then I filled my world with it. I expanded my tastes so much that, if I didn't buy a new album for years, I would still be fine, I guess. Or if every album I listened to from now on was by an artist I already knew.

The flip side of this is that it's hard to be impressed by anything I don't already like. This was a problem before, of course: I deliberately opened my mind and overcame years-old hangups to start liking new things. Now, the competition is even stiffer. Anything new that wants space on my iPod has to be somehow exceptional.

So what, then, is exceptional about The War on Drugs? I'm not even sure. It's symphonic and languid - although I've already heard plenty of (great) albums so far this year that take the same tack. It's very orchestral, taking the scenic route through its compositions and rarely if ever adhering to pop structure, with songs sometimes feeling like riffs unspooled to 6 or 8 minutes. It favours slow builds and the exploration, even extension farbeyond what one might think possible, of every moment. Homey pianos twinkle underneath singing strings and some synths and shimmering guitars. This isn't something you listen to for immediate gratification, you listen to it in the background and then suddenly it takes you.

Is it fresh? Is it different? Is it familiar? is it exceptional? Is it good? I don't want to take my usual 2-3 months (optimistically) spinning it over and over to find out. But it was the third or fourth option I laid out for myself for the night, for something new, something by a band I'd never heard before, and it was the only one I not only kept listening to, but listened the whole way through. And I'd listen to it again. In this moment, tonight, I liked it, and felt it was worth the time. That counts for something.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Day My Childhood Died. Also: Ninja Turtles Trailer

Like any rude young 90s dude with attitude, I used to wear a rad baseball cap. It was a point of pride in my day to take the brim of that cap and break it in good, forming it into a unique curve to shadow your forehead. so none of those lame grownups could see your true intentions. (If you were dweeby enough to wear your cap forwards, anyway.)

My aunt's first kid was born when I was 16. By the time he was old enough to wear his own baseball caps, my aunt went to show him how to bend it and he recoiled: "No! Leave it flat! Nobody bends it!" When I heard this, I was scandalized. Leave the brim flat? Leave the sticker on? What hellish dystopia is this??

It was my first indication that I have gotten older as time has gone on, and am now part of a different generation from my younger relatives. They have different preferences for things, which are sometimes deliberately opposite from the way things were done in the past, including during "my day," so that the younger generation can put their own spin on things. The flat brim thing might not be generational per se (Urban Dictionary tells me it dates back to early 90s Oakland gangsta culture and had at least made it to my high school by '05) but it's a way things are often different from your cherished memories.

Aaaaanyway, there's a new Ninja Turtles trailer that will probably get some people saying it "killed their childhood." Guess what though: if you're old enough to remember other versions of the Ninja Turtles, your childhood is already dead because you're old, guy. Maybe you're not retirement age, but if you're in your 20s as I claim to be, you've had plenty of time with those heroes in a half shell. And they are about as durable as any franchise going, having lived as satirical underground comic icons, merch-driven cereal mascots, cumbersome if impressively-sculpted Henson puppets, time travelers, CGI characters, video game characters, and a trillion and seven different action figure variations. Here's one more incarnation.

And aside from the fact that I don't dig Megan Fox being in any movie on general principle, there's nothing in this trailer that doesn't seem like a perfectly valid contribution to the source. In fact, I actually dig the "It's just a mask!" bit.

Times change, people change, Ninja Turtles change. My years of watching the first two live-action movies over and over every weekend of the summer, when that was the only way to visit with those characters, are far behind me. Now I've got my choices when it comes to the Turtles. The kids do too.

Friday, March 14, 2014

U2 & Me

When I was younger, I had an irrational hatred for U2.

Today won't be the day I really dig into my now-complicated feelings toward this immensely-popular band and how I can feel stranger about putting my stamp of approval on them than I can Ke$ha. Life's funny that way. Mostly I've made my peace and think live-and-let-live. I don't think I have a problem with people disliking them or liking them. But when I was younger, I had a very vocal hatred for them that was undeniably irrational.

I was 13, in Grade 8, and the massive juggernaut that was All That You Can't Leave Behind had been released.  At the time, my main radio listening was time spent in the car with my dad, when he listened to Mix 99.9, which played "the best of the 80's, 90's, and Today." Which involved a lot of U2, from all decades, and especially these new songs that were re-conquering the radio after their years spent sidetracked in electro-dance-pop or whatever.

I didn't like them. Since I was young and not really given to looking into things beyond my gut reactions, it's not important why, what specifically I didn't like. That they just were a thing I decided was bad, and they were always around. Always playing. Couldn't get into the car without hearing, say, "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "Where The Streets Have No Names" or their then-most recent single, "Beautiful Day." Something about their popularity drove me crazy, and when you're young - old enough to have opinions but too young to deal with the world - anything that contradicts your tastes is just the worst.

Then one morning, I want to say in the middle of November 2000, I woke up at 7:00 AM to the sound of "Beautiful Day," playing on the clock radio, and looked out my window, and the snow was up to here (motions to knees.) All overnight, the world had been blotted out and covered in a solid foot of white powder. I live in Canada, so I've seen my fair share of snow days, but for some reason that's the one that stuck with me. I was filled with this elation, this freedom and joy at the inclement weather and all the possibilities it brought. Like, how fitting that I'd hear this song (hardly an uncommon occurrence) to welcome me into this obviously not conventionally "beautiful" day. But the sky was blue and I was free to do whatever I wanted. It was the kind of pat juxtaposition I could wrap my little brain around.

What I did actually do that day sounds boring to tell it now, but I used it and I enjoyed it and I felt good. And this thing that I had hated, this song, this band, would be forever linked to this positive memory. Whatever I hated about that song folded so perfectly into that context, the two have been linked ever since.

The winter of 2013-14 has been ridiculous and has really put me (and many of you, I'm sure) in a mood. And after two days of springlike weather, Wednesday brought us a flash blizzard that turned the store where I work into a total ghost town. I'm sure it would have been a snow day, had the schools not already been closed for March Break. And that Wednesday, I was standing in the grocery store, and "Beautiful Day" came on the PA system - the grocery store, for whatever reason, always seems to be playing music calculated to appeal to me and me alone - and I just zoned out.

That's the gift, man. Whether I do or do not enjoy U2's music as a 26-year-old in 2014, and even whether I hated it as a 13-year-old in 2000, that song in particular is strongly, inextricably linked to a place and time in my life. Nostalgia factor isn't something that really abides by the tastes you think of yourself as having. The music you listen to today -- the stuff you choose and the stuff that is just part of your life -- will remind you of this time and place somewhere down the road when you really need it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonic Sandwich: Broken Bells, Cage the Elephant, and the art of the follow-up

I really dig the Broken Bells' sound. Filtering James Mercer's indie boy tendencies through Danger Mouse's omniglot dance-funk-rap-pop-classical production resulted in an album that was unique, yet familiar. There were lumps and bumps along the way, directions pursued that didn't always pan out, but the high points of the album were some of the best music of that year. Putting "Disco" in the title track of their new album suggests, accurately, what part of their sound they are choosing to emphasize, as some of those loose threads are cut off to seek a more robustly realized synth-funk sound. The album often sounds like a mashup of The Zombies and the BeeGees.

This is a pretty creatively fertile area and they definitely aren't the first outfit to plunge into an updated version of the '70s sound. Daft Punk had a winner on their hands last year that changed the game. Arcade Fire put their spin on it by tying it to their Haitian roots and postmodern ideas, and even the Strokes dabbled on some oft-underrated albums. The Bells bring a slick product to the table, but still one with ideas, showing this is definitely a sandbox with room to play in. So it doesn't have the scope of their first album, and each moment doesn't quick stick out because of that, but it does seem to get a lot more out of its chosen direction.

Another band that has trimmed away some of the wilder impulses of their last release was Cage the Elephant. Thank you Happy Birthday, their 2011 release, was an wild affair, swinging from abrasive, screaming, howling non-songs to only slightly gritty power pop. They've brought their outsider tendencies more to the center, refining their sound for a real breakthrough. Whereas TYHB was the descendant of the Pixies/Nirvana school of alt rock, where it felt like damn near anything could crop up in the midst of the deft songwriting and playing, 2013's Melophobia is much more pop oriented. This isn't to say it's smoothed over and shined up into the oblivion of compromise: it still has some really delightful rough edges (the first track has an artificial glitch just to make sure you're paying attention.) It takes its cues from 60s garage rock, with fiery brass accents on "Black Widow" and the voyeuristic, dreamlike "Telescope." "Take It Or Leave It" has a slinky, almost bossa nova gentleness to it before hitting its chorus hard, and the Peter Gunn-like "It's Just Forever" features Alison Mosshart. Then there's the jangle pop of "Hypocrite" matched against the feedback-laden eccentricity of "Teeth," which would have easily been at home on the earlier album. Much like the Broken Bells, some of this was foreshadowed on the earlier disc - it's not so much a case of changing directions as it is staying on the straight path. For me, TYHB was an album of extreme ups and downs: The sound of this new album is more lush and warm, less intimidating even as it occasionally wigs out.

In both cases, I think there are better songs other earlier, more experimental albums, but would have a hard time denying that the later album is, top to bottom, the more enjoyable listen. Having looked around at all the possible versions they could be, both the Broken Bells and Cage the Elephant have decided which aspects they would like to carry forward, and it is to the benefit of both. Maybe there has been a change in the way bands are doing things, or what albums I'm choosing, or perhaps even how I'm listening to, but I'm finding fewer and fewer albums where I only like some of the songs, and more that carry a unified atmosphere that I want to keep in its entirety. If this is a response to the "pick your favourites" iTunes era, then I am for it. Artists are taking care to make a solid, unified work that makes their entire album worth hearing, living with, and returning to again and again.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Job Is To Point

A guy comes to my cash register holding an infant to his shoulder with one hand, and the Beach Boys' Greatest Hits in the other.

"I had to get this. You were playing The Beach Boys in here a few days ago and he was dancing around in his stroller. His mom didn't believe me, so I put on a YouTube video and he starts dancing around again..."

This isn't in itself that unusual... on occasions where we ditch the pre-planned playlist of current hits, we usually see an increase in sales for whatever we've got on, even if it's something most people have heard thousands of times over their entire life. They just happen to remember, at that moment, as the CD plays through, how great all those songs were, and hey, they don't have a copy at home.

I don't sell music, really. The music sells itself. And sometimes that's because it's part of a lifestyle, the current thing, a get-it-while-its-good prospect. Sometimes it's some cool new thing nobody has heard of that you're excited to discover. And sometimes it's an evergreen gem, something that recurs over the course of time, whose appeal is so timeless even your 8-month-old feels it.

My job on this site is really just to point at things. Dress them up a bit and tell you what they're like in terms of other things you know, or feelings you might like to have about something, make sure you're aware of stuff that might be in your interests, provided your interests line up with mine. I'm not a goddamn genius but you don't have to be to appreciate music, in fact it maybe even hinders you.

"Yeah man," I said, "Kids love oldies. Something about them just clicks...

"...So, do you collect points on a membership card?"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dum Dum Girls: Too True

After the Dum Dum Girls masterfully covered Big Star's "September Gurls" for the AV Club's cover series, I took notice and picked up their first album. I was really taken with their sound and always meant to get around to writing about them, but I am terrible enough at writing things I intend to get around to, and the album was a few years old by that point anyway. The good news is that eventually I had waited so long that the DDG's had gone and recorded a new album called Too True, with the title track boasting the elegantly delivered lyric "Too true / Too true to be good" which is not exactly an original retake on that saying, but it works damn wonders.

Simple statements delivered with panache abound on this terrific album, from the teasing opener, "Cult of Love," to the strummy ballads like "Are You OK?" and "Under These Hands" to the more kinetic numbers like "Evil Blooms" and "Little Minx." The sound of Dum Dum Girls is one of mystery and light set against darkness: a throwback to 80s girl pop that ends up as the flip side of Haim, the fuzzy, elliptical 'Til Tuesday to Haim's direct Bangles-meets-Fleetwood approach. If you like one you should like both, and if you dislike one you could probably still like the other.

My personal favourite track is "In The Wake Of You." The first time I heard it I was completely knocked out, like the girls had compressed a maximum of loving, losing and longing into 2 minutes and 40 seconds, capturing the immensity of those emotions with an unearthly ease in something that feels dashed off yet perfectly gilded. The overall sound of the album, full of soundscapes beneath the rumbling drums and majestic strummed riffs, supports deep emotions without making it look like they're working too hard. As much as there is going on in each of these songs, there is not one false move.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wrestling Post: Yes We Can't

Although I have posted about wrestling before, and somehow feel free to tweet occasionally about it on Monday nights, I try not to write posts about current wrestling. As much as it occupies a strangely large part of my brain, it's a constantly ongoing story without much in the way of resolution, so I can never find a good point to step back and take the big picture view until years later. Especially because, as it happens, being a fan of this particular medium can be so damn frustrating.

You have to worry about things on so many levels. Nominally, it's "I hope Daniel Bryan wins this match" but in reality it's, "I hope Daniel Bryan gets pushed." It's "I hope Daniel Bryan looks good. I hope they have confidence in him." You watch the show to see how your favourite is depicted.

Monday, March 3, 2014

[dot dot dot] TV Thoughts for March 3, 2014

I was going to write a thinkpiece about the Academy Awards results, but then I realized I hadn't seen any of the nominated movies, so here's a rundown of stuff I've seen on TV lately.
  • I was going to tweet a joke about how AMC was showing a first-season episode of LOST during the Walking Dead timeslot based on a scene of Beth and Daryl playing a game of "I Never" that served more or less the same function as the same between Kate and Sawyer, but I thought better of it because the truth is TWD did right by it anyway. It's a show whose writing I feel sometimes struggles to live up to its premise, that sometimes isn't sure where the path to being its best version is, but those moments have quietly faded over the last two seasons. The smartest thing they could have done with this half-season is split these characters into isolated groups that are not always the most convenient for the characters themselves. It allows each of them to reveal sides, get new dimensions, and face different problems, and the Daryl/Beth story tonight, as unpleasant, nasty and unflinching as it got at points, felt raw, like one of the somewhat rare moments when TWD feels like excellent TV without even having a cool one-eyed badguy coming to kill everybody.
  • In what should not be regarded as surprising, I enjoy Linda Cardellini as Jess' sister on New Girl.
  • Super Fun Night is not a great show, but I was intrigued at the way it elected to show one of its characters coming to terms with her sexuality. While LGBT characters are not absent from network shows these days, most of them seem to be out and ready to go from the start of the series. Even on Degrassi.
    • Speaking of which, one of the articles I almost wrote back in the day was a mourning of the death of Adam Torres on that show, who was great as an example of a major LGBT character, who was very well-rounded and relatable, not to mention well-performed by his actor, Jordan Todosey. I felt it was a shame TV had to lose such an important character in a relatively crappy storyline (clumsy, badly-timed, right after another more meaningful death,) and the fallout from that, and perhaps also actually realizing that I'm old now and not really having time to find it, has led to me not watching it regularly for the first time in many years.
  • Dan Harmon's return to Community is an unequivocal success, perhaps underscored by the fact that they have taken a soft-touch approach to the genre tributes in favour of a sort of settled middle age that doesn't sacrifice the actual-goddamn-funny. ("Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe what ghosts tell you about other ghosts?")
  • I watched the first episode of a show called Mixology this week and I have no idea what I think about it, so if anyone wants to have an opinion about it, I'll back you up.
  • The long-anticipated Late Night shake up took place, with Fallon stepping up to the Tonight Show, Seth Myers moving from SNL's Weekend Update to the new Late Night, with that seat now being filled by Colin Jost. If the pattern holds, he'll be hosting his own late night show in five years, while Cecily Strong has her own sitcom vehicle Thursday nights. Hackneyed jokes aside...
    • I'll admit that Jimmy Fallon isn't my thing, and since this blog isn't really about things I hate I can comfortably leave it at that but qualify it by saying I think his particular energy is exactly what a Tonight Show host would need. It's certainly a better fit than the consciously weird, self-effacing sometimes Brechtian attitude Conan brings, which I happen to prefer but doesn't "play in Peoria," as they say. I haven't seen enough of Myers' interviews yet, but he's a born monologuer and bit-doer, so he's got two thirds of the job down pat. I actually quite like his "hey, I'm just talking to you now" incredulous straight man stuff, so he'll be welcome and straightforward if not groundbreaking and subversive. And over on WU, Jost's first outing proves him to be a very dry deliveryman, which is something we've not gotten as the trend has been toward more zany and mugging, so I'm for it.
    • Guess I should clarify, by way of saying Jimmy Fallon isn't my thing, I'm really more of a Stewart-Colbert guy anyway, so even as this change happened - even as it happened last time, with Conan! - I felt like I didn't really have a dog in the fight. Then as now, I just wish everyone the best.