Monday, November 18, 2013

What I’m Listening To

A sampling of what I have in my headphones right now.

broken-bells

James Mercer (of The Shins) and Danger Mouse return with the next bit of music from their outstanding Broken Bells project. It may be a small thing, but I just love the “aaaaah-oooohs” in the background around 1:20. These guys know how to make music.

This is from a band I just discovered and will be looking into a little more. This one actually comes with a free download too. Check out Great Good Fine Ok.

For the indie folk fans out there, don’t miss The Head and the Heart’s “Another Story”.

I don’t fall for pop songs like this very often, but Sia, with help from the amazing vocals of The Weeknd, makes an absolute gem for The Hunger Games. There’s a few good tracks on the soundtrack, but this one really jumps out.

You really shouldn’t miss the new Arctic Monkeys album. And this is the track I keep playing over and over.

The Smith Westerns have really grown on me slowly. It took me a few listens, but I’m really digging this.

Painted Palms are another brand new discovery. Really like the energy.

Washed Out, most famous for being the artist behind the Portlandia theme song, made some pretty great tracks for their new album. Like this one.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Discovering the Lesser Known Side of The Beach Boys

beach-boys-hollywood-bowl

“When you listen to Pet Sounds, you use earphones, in the dark.” –Brian Wilson

As you start reading this post, I’d like you to click play on this track as you read my intro. The song is “Feel Flows” and the band is The Beach Boys. The same Beach Boys who you probably know for all the typical things: surfing, sun, girls, and California.

When Pandora first came around we were first introduced to the Music Genome Project, and if you are a Pandora user you may have been taught a little bit about your own music tastes. Maybe you learned a little about why you like what you like and learned some new terms. Music taste is such a subjective thing. I can try to explain it you why I like one sound more than another in paragraph form, but Pandora took that same information and tried to feed you bands and songs that were similar.

As I got more and more into music, one constant underlying comparison that kept coming up in bands I liked was Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. The Shins, for example, often elicit Beach Boys comparisons, albeit subtly. For Local Natives, another favorite, it’s more obvious. I’ve seen comparisons made between the Beach Boys and Panda Bear/Noah Lennox/Animal Collective. Recently, while reading a little bit about Caveman, a smaller band I recently got into, The Beach Boys came up again. Here’s an example, side by side. Check out the isolated vocal track of “God Only Knows” next to a more modern track from Panda Bear and tell me you don’t hear the influence.

Here’s a band that, in 2013, is still being used to explain a certain identifiable sound over and over and over again. How prevalent is that? How many bands did something so distinct that their very sound can be described as Beach Boys-ish? What the Beach Boys did—essentially take barbershop quarter harmonies, intermingle them with pop music and experimentalism, and create a sound that helps to define the entirety of Southern California—is legendary if you think about it, but generally unappreciated. We revere The Beatles, Elvis, and Michael Jackson, but there’s a forgotten history amongst my generation surrounding the Beach Boys, a history that’s been whittled down to their sunny early hits like “California Girls”. But the Beach Boys are a complicated lot, as haunted and divided by their own stereotypes as anyone. The constant divide between Brian Wilson’s desire to be a forerunner in experimental music and Mike Love’s desire to be the cars-and-beaches-and-girls band that originally hit it big dragged the band apart for decades. I look forward to watching Paul Dano star as Brian Wilson in a legitimate biopic next year. Expect me to be there on opening day.

There are too many great pieces of writing out there that document the entire Beach Boys history, so I’ll save the internet from having another. But recently I became obsessed with listening to their entire collection front to back and understanding their development. Here’s a nugget of fun for you involving two well know Beach Boys hits, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Kokomo”: they were released 26 years apart. When I found that out, I had to hear everything in between.

To keep this manifesto reasonably short, my goal here is just to share with you some tracks that show their progress and development so that maybe you can begin to appreciate the Beach Boys as groundbreaking legends and not just surfer singers from the 60’s.

Early on it really was cars and surfing and girls. And root beer stands. The Beach Boys were clean and mom and dad approved.

1962

1963

The Beach Boys started to bare a more thoughtful and sensitive side in the next couple albums. Pensive “In My Room”, a song literally about hiding from the world in your room, is Brian Wilson early preview of some social issues that would plague him later. In 1964 they released one their best tracks ever, the comforting “Don’t Worry Baby”.

1965

An awesome look into the studio during the “Help Me Rhonda” recording session, from the same album that featured “California Girls”.

1966

Retrospectively, the band peaked in 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds, which many consider to be one of the greatest single album in the history of music. Rolling Stone has it at #2 on their Top 500 of All Time, NME has it #1.The album is indeed a masterpiece in many ways, combining a deft understanding of pop music with a desire to push and experiment. Straight from Wikipedia, an idea of instrument used on this album includes: “bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, electro-thermin, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans, and barking dogs”. Any fan of indie music today will recognize that level of experimentation. The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, and other experimentalists employ similar concepts today to critical acclaim, but did you know the Beach Boys were doing it in 1966? If you want to nerd it up, give this a read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_Sounds#Recording_process. This album includes my favorite Beach Boys track:

1967

I love Smiley Smile. I love that it confused the crap out of people at the time. I love that it’s half drug-addled, and half brilliant. I love that over time it’s become a cult classic, one of those albums that viewed through a different lense as the years passed by. It includes perhaps the most complicated track they’ve ever written (“Good Vibrations”), the most drugged up hilarious atrocity they ever wrote (“She’s Going Bald”), and mix of stellar tracks and comical duds.

Things weren’t as sweet from this point on, but there are some very underrated and unknown tracks that emerged in the next decade.

1969

1970

1973

1980-89

Kokomo’s success, in retrospect, is shocking. The Beach Boys, overcome by internal strife and years of only tepid popularity, suddenly scored a #1 hit in 1988, their first since 1966. 22 years!

…And beyond

To things to note during this time period. First, is the debacle that was 1992’s Summer in Paradise, a comic disaster of an album for many reasons. It has a song that features John Stamos! This is wonderful in so many terrible ways:

Their 1992 material was their last originals for 20 years until 2012, when they released an album as a bunch of old guys that was, well, actually pretty dang good.

Everything I love about the Beach Boys you can find by listening to Pet Sounds, catching the isolated vocals tracks, reading about Brian Wilson’s dedication to experimentation, and thinking about their lasting legacy. There has only ever been one band to ever sound like them. An entire sunny, surfing culture and feeling is elicited from just listening to “Surfin’ USA”, a whole avant garde/baroque pop generation emerged from sessions like those that created “Good Vibrations”, and these two songs were created by the same band. And if you think I’m overstating their experimentation, look up the terms and you’ll find Beach Boys references all over the place. If you’re interested in learning more, enjoy the following documentary. Hope you learned something!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

arcade-fire-reflektor-cover-500x500 (1)

★1/2

Three and a half stars. Lined up against most other reviews, that’s above average and a compliment. Lined up against some of the early reviews of Reflektor, it might be an insult. In reality, it’s just the truth.

The Arcade Fire, who I was fortunate enough to see live in 2011, are possibly the greatest live act I’ve ever seen. In their earliest days, their debut album gave me “Rebellion (Lies)”, a song that grabbed me during a phase in my music life when songs like that didn’t grab me. Since then they have been astonishingly consistent. Four albums, four winners. Meanwhile their sound has morphed an changed, but remained distinctly Arcade Fire.

Reflektor is another heavily themed album. Where their previous effort, the outstanding The Suburbs, studied the themes related to the suburban sprawl, Reflektor studies the trap of modern technology and communication. It’s right there in the stellar title track: “We're still connected, but are we even friends? We fell in love when I was nineteen, And I was staring at a screen”. The seven and a half minute track is an epic, featuring a David Bowie cameo and brilliant horn and piano bits near the end. “Reflektor” sets the stage wonderfully, pushing the listener head first into an hour and a half long journey. It’s an amazing piece of music. After the generally forgettable “We Exist” is the noisy and interesting “Flashbulb Eyes”. Whether the song is about media attention or audiences who won’t put down their cameras or something else, I’m not sure, but as a herky jerky rocker, the song excels.

Some of the problems with Reflektor are evidenced on “Here Comes the Night Time”, where The Arcade Fire invite you to come along on a six and a half minute song that doesn’t really go anywhere. The song is alright and all, as basically every Arcade Fire song is at a minimum, but I ask myself if I’m ever going to listen through this one in its entirety down the road. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” suffers similarly.

There’s plenty more to love here. The quirky “Normal Person” stands out, with Butler singing over a tight piano and guitar groove before the song breaks out. It’s the most White Stripes-ish thing The Arcade Fire has ever done, and it works. “You Already Know” is the most familiar, classic sounding track on the album, and is probably a romp live. “Awful Song (Oh Eurydice)”, growing from snare drums and strings, is the building, rousing track of the album, and one of the most initially pleasing tracks. One of the album’s best tracks, though, is “Porno”, which gives the lead track a run for its money. “Porno” is a cautionary tale about female sexuality and the male perception of it, layered over dark of foreboding synths. When Win Butler’s voice sails higher over the chorus, it’s the most impactful moment on the album.

So where does this album fit in the pantheon of stellar Arcade Fire albums? Is it as good as people say it is (Pitchfork 9.1 score, my favorite blog called it their “OK Computer”)? The answer is that no, this album isn’t even their best. It’s just another great album by a great band. It lacks the staggeringly great tracks on their debut, and the consistency of The Suburbs. It’s mood is closer to Neon Bible, but it feels darker, more cautionary, and more coalescent than that album. In reality, coalescence is the album’s chief strength: it may not have a dearth of mind-blowing singles, but it works as one heckuva full album. Worth the buy, but don’t expect it to change your life. Just enjoy it. And enjoy this video.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Pearl Jam – “Lightning Bolt”

pearljam

Somewhere in my closet back in Arizona sits a relic of days past. My giant black book CD collection housing every band from A to L, Arcade Fire to LCD Soundsystem. Missing is a matching black book housing the remaining letters. It was stolen out of my car in Boise back in 2009, a heartbreaking incident for a “collector”. Part of the pain of that loss came in the form of losing entire discographies. During a brief period of obsession I had purchased every Pearl Jam album, liner notes and all, and poured through the music like every decent Seattle music blogger should, I suppose. From the revered classics like Ten to personal favorites like Vs to albums that rarely get air time like Riot Act, I became a Pearl Jam fan.

Perhaps there were hints of what “Lightning Bolt” would be, but I didn’t really see it coming. Vedder has never completely shied away from the softer side or strings (see “Man of the Hour”, a favorite, and the string-laden cover “Love Reign O’ve Me” as examples), but ultimately Pearl Jam have existed as a ROCK band. Independently, Eddie Vedder fronted the emotional soundtrack to the film Into the Wild and even released an album called Ukulele Songs of all things. So maybe there was a hint at maturity, but those themes hadn’t necessarily leaked onto an actual Pearl Jam album yet.

“Getaway”, the outstanding opening song on new album Lightning Bolt, is classic Pearl Jam. “Mind Your Manners” is in the same vein, albeit not nearly as well done as “Getaway”. “My Father’s Son” is probably the album’s weakest track. Something happens after this though, and it’s hard for me not to view it as a second album starting on track four, the vulnerable sounding “Sirens” where Vedder reaches a near-falsetto as he sings “all things change, let this remain” before distant guitar echoes in the background. Words used in the song? How about “fragile”, “grace”, “love”, “safe”, “grateful man”, and “distant laughter”. It’s a staggering turn of events that in the 90’s may have been panned. But here’s the thing: Eddie Vedder turns 50 years old next year.

That’s not to say he goes full on wimpy (“Lightning Bolt” shifts the mood a bit as a driving rock song), but there’s definitely some elements of maturity and aging present. “Swallowed Whole” has a distinct Pearl Jam feel, but the lyrics includes thoughts on “what lies beyond the grave” and declarations like “I can start the healing now”. The final three tracks are all softer. “Sleeping By Myself” is a rework of a track from the Ukulele Songs with full band elevating it a little bit. “Yellow Moon” is a stirring track, building and building into something special. And “Future Days”, the final track, is nothing short of special. Ending on a softer note is definitely part of the pattern for many Pearl Jam records, but it’s certainly unlike anything they’ve ever written, as given away right away by the soft piano intro. It finds Vedder pining “All the demons used to come around, I'm grateful now they've left” in perhaps the most telling lyrics of the whole album. Pearl Jam references pain and angst as if it’s past tense (“Back when I was feeling broken”), and focuses on the positivity in the future. The song has piano, it has strings, and while it may sound decidedly “un-Pearl Jam”, there’s just something perfectly great about that. With Pearl Jam’s career spanning over 20 years, they sound fully grown, confident, and comfortable. And to my ears, they haven’t sounded this good in many years.