Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Perfume Genius – “Put Your Back N 2 It”

Perfume-Genius

★1/2

I remember the first time I heard The Antlers’ “Hospice” very clearly, my eyes glued to the lyrics as I experienced the album, riveted like any intense story or movie. “Hospice” was emotionally stirring, but was admittedly dark as it journeyed through death in a hospital bed. It got under your skin and dragged you in for repeated listens. I know that “Hospice” is not the subject of this review, but follow me for a second if you don’t mind.

Perfume Genius, the stage name of Seattle’s Mark Hadreas, has released “Put Your Back N 2 It”, an album I’ve been looking forward to hearing ever since I got a hold of a free download of “All Waters” last year, which went on to be listed #30 in my favorite tracks of the year post due to it’s absolutely haunting beauty and slow build. Now he’s released the full length album to critical acclaim (82 on Metacritc, Pitchfork’s “Best New Music”, etc.), but after listening to the album I feel little else than unsettled.

Now I know that some art is unsettling, and that many consider this to be a virtue. Perfume Genius deals with subject matter that I don’t relate to on any level, which I’m sure plays a part in my reaction, although I wonder how many people will. But when this content is cloaked in the lovely piano that makes up the beginning of songs like “AWOL Marine”, it sends a chill down my spine that I don’t find the least bit enjoyable. On “AWOL Marine” there’s a deep sigh, and on “Dirge” there’s strained breathing. “No Tear” has an almost creepy deep voiced backing.

On “Put Your Back N 2 It”, Perfume Genius is tender, shaky, unnerved, and disturbed. Yes, at it’s best moments he sounds a little Sufjan-y, and the purity of the piano and the strings throughout is undeniable. “All Waters” remains an outstanding song, and “Take Me Home” with its touch of soul and percussion add a slight mood shift that is very welcome. And despite the sadness underlying “Hood”, like “All Waters” it sounds undeniably gorgeous.

I recognize that this review may sound unfair, but I try to understand who my readership is and be honest with my reactions to the music I listen to. When I listened to The Antler's’ “Hospice”, I recognized the heaviness of the content, but I wanted to listen again and again and again. After enduring the gut-wrenching emotion of “Put Your Back N 2 It” set consistently over close-to-repetitive soft piano for two minute snippets of time, I emerged with no desire to listen to this album too many more times in my life. This will put me in the minority, I believe, but that’s how I view it. Still, “All Waters” deserves a place in your collection, and “Take Me Home” as well. I certainly don’t discount the talent that Hadreas has, but I believe that respecting talent/ability is not inherently tied to enjoying it, and I must be honest on my reaction and express doubts at how much you will like this album.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lana Del Rey – “Born to Die”

lana-del-rey-born-to-die

So, in case you’ve missed it, apparently Lana Del Rey is quite the controversy. I suppose it’s my duty as a music reviewer to weigh in, but I’m more intrigued by figuring out exactly why she’s so controversial than I am picking a side. More than that, though, I’m interested in actually reviewing the album, which gets lost in the ridiculous shuffle, since most of the lovers and the haters battled when Lana had still not even released her full length album.

Okay, so she tried to make in music already under another name. Then her daddy’s finances helped out. Then she re-branded and changed her name. In the pop world, this is called normal. Case in point:

Katy Perry? She’s Kathryn Hudson, and a former Christian singer. Lady Gaga is Stefani Germanotta. Elton John is famously Reginald Kenneth Dwight. Nicki Minaj’s real name is Onika Maraj.

But, of course, what separates Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant) is not that she changed her name or had a former career, it’s that she was marketed to the indie circle, burning up the blogs with the outstanding track “Video Games”. The indie crowd values, perhaps above anything, this new super-value of “authenticity”. They want something that is real, man. In this generation it’s almost better to be real than to be nice, good, or courteous. On reality tv this leads to ridiculous arguments where someone lays out a barrage of unsuspecting insults in the name of “being real”.

So then Lana, faced already with an entire group of people who hated what she represented, goes onto SNL. The Indie Infiltrator herself then bombs spectacularly, mumbling through her own song as if she doesn’t know how to hit a note. An already tense blogosphere exploded, and Lana now represented perhaps the most controversial artist ever to have not quite released an album yet.

Notice what we haven’t talked about yet? Her actual album. It reached a new level of absurd frankly, with everyone taking a side for or against the girl without actually trying her music. And I think we all know that we can either love or hate something depending upon our predisposition, even if we don’t want to admit that. I try my best to approach every album without any inkling how I’ll rate it before listening to it. That wouldn’t be fair. What I found shouldn’t be surprising: with Lana-haters touting her as a pariah and Lana-lovers adoring her interesting style, the actual music lies exactly in the middle. In some ways, it’s just mind-blowing that a 3-star album could cause this much trouble.

The album actually starts with surprising strength. “Born to Die”, full of soft strings and steady beat, is particularly strong when Lana hits her higher levels on the chorus. “Off to the Races” is as pop as the album gets, but it’s also one of the most fascinating sounding songs on the album. Lana, playing the temptress at her best, squeals her way through the chorus like a little Marilyn Monroe (“I’m your little scarlet, scarlet/singing in the garden/kiss me on my open mouth”). And then “Blue Jeans”, produced as it may sound, and full of James Dean references and questionable rhymes (“you fit me better/than my fa-vor-ite sweater”? “I still remember, that day we met in December”? Ouch.), is still just sorta fun and provides a perfect extension of the character she’s created (or fine, that her label created…*doomful noise*). Then we have “Video Games”, the nearly untouchable single, which landed in my best of 2011. It’s even better with the video. Four tracks in, and I was left wondering what the big deal was.

Imperfections certainly do creep in. “Diet Mountain Dew”, which immediately jumps off as an odd song choice for someone looking for “gangster Nancy Sinatra”, is forgettable and overproduced. “National Anthem”, featuring plenty of talk-singing, also fails to grab, and may even annoy with the delivery of lines like “money is the reason we exist/everybody knows it, it’s a fact/kiss, kiss”. “Carmen” is also forgettable, and while perhaps the women readership may find more to like in a song called “This is What Makes Us Girls”, the decent sounding song fails to connect with me.

But there’s plenty more to like here. “Dark Paradise”, another song that makes use of strings, delivers a swarming pop tune. Heavy on production, yes, but here’s a song that at least makes good use of those studio strings. “Radio”, one of the more intimate of the songs, captures a hint of an emotional core in a generally (and seemingly intentionally) emotionless album. Elsewhere “Million Dollar Man” is positively cinematic, and “Summertime Sadness” is a capable ballad. And don’t miss bonus track “Lucky Ones”, which in some ways feels closer to Evita than pop radio. And I mean that as a compliment.

I don’t mean to over-compliment the album though. While many tracks sound good individually, they also tend to sound similar. Lots of production, lots of strings. I’m not opposed to those things in principle, but they appear so much that the album can blend together unnecessarily, especially towards the middle and very back of the album.

If this album was marketed purely as a pop album, we might be looking at an artist who found minor success on the charts, and a few indie fans who enjoyed her on the side. Instead we have controversy. But really, who cares? Did you like the album? Did you hate the album? Have you even heard the album? Isn’t the album truly, when it gets down to it, “pretty good”? No, Lana-haters, this is not garbage. Her past are facts, and these facts do not in any way influence the way that the notes combine with the lyrics and the vocals. But hey Lana-lovers, let’s remember that some people do value authenticity, and that any appearance that an artist can’t replicate their music live does turn people off. Let’s face it, she’s right in the middle, with songs worth hearing and songs worth avoiding. She’s not evil, she’s not a godsend. She’s Lana Del Rey, pretty good artist, branded persona, owner of a 3-star album that I don’t regret buying.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bands That Should Be Bigger Than They Are

I totally get why some bands never hit the big time. We probably all have music we listen to that we love, but we’re not really surprised why it doesn’t strike a chord with other people. My recent post about Craig Finn and The Hold Steady got me thinking about this. I love The Hold Steady with a passion, but I’m not shocked in the least that I’ve convinced maybe one person in my life to love them too. What ultimately convinced me to write this though, was happening to see that Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, my #3 song last year, was solidly in VH1’s Top 20 Countdown. I’m not one to abandon songs or artists when they get big. I want good music to be heard. Good for Gotye.

There’s also bands where you can just see it coming. For years I followed and loved Muse (still do), but they lingered in semi-obscurity until their 4th album. Muse had a special quality about them. It was almost a foregone conclusion that somewhere along the line they’d hit it big. Kings of Leon had a similar quality, especially after they got a little less gritty with “Because of the Times”.

Of course, for every success story, there’s a million other misses. These bands have following for sure. Indie success, festival appearances, selling out small clubs, etc., but no Top 40 hits and no name recognition with the general public. Maybe for these bands there’s still time, but here are a couple bands that not only deserve more praise, but actually have enough pop sensibility to get a crossover hit. I realize this is terribly ill defined and unscientific, but see if you agree:

1) Spoon

Spoon

Spoon might be the most consistently amazing band in music today. Every album is amazing. Nearly every track they’ve ever made is good. They are experimental, but not in an obtrusive way. Sometimes they show an acute display for a catchy song. Yet for all their massive success on the indie charts, and even a brief moment of fame on The O.C., Spoon’s top chart achievement is landing this song at #26 on the Modern Rock chart.

2) Cold War Kids

cwk

Based on the complete style shift on their last album, Cold War Kids is a little miffed on not being bigger too. I’ve always felt Cold War Kids were fantastic. Clearly interesting and no one sounds like them, but they have quite a few songs that could have splashed the Top 40 if they got lucky. The best they’ve been able to achieve is #122 with this one.

3) Minus the Bear

I absolutely adored Minus the Bear’s 2007 album “Planet of Ice”. When I first heard the lead single “My Time” from their 2010 follow-up, I thought they might make it. Instead they’ve never charted on the main chart, instead peaking at #8 on the Alternative chart. It’s a shame, because I don’t know anyone who has heard that hasn’t liked them.

4) Mutemath

There’s hope yet for Mutemath. Their best album, their 2006 debut, may be the least heard, but “Spotlight” landed on the Twilight soundtrack, and “Blood Pressure” has been featured on tons of sports promos recently. They’ve even done Leno now. But while they’re close, they haven’t quite made it there yet. Albums have charted, but not a single track.

5) Local Natives

IMG_2220

(Yes, that’s me with the lead singer…disclaimer) These guys have only one album under their belts, but two years after it debuted they are unfortunately obscure. I’m still holding out hope for their future, because they have that perfect kind of sound that may just be indie enough for the indie fan, but poppy enough for the pop fan. When the Venn diagrams of indie and pop perfectly cross, that’s when I’m the happiest. And how can you not love this song?