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Hot Off the Press: Archives of an Overworked Music Critic

As most of you know, I do this little music journalism thing on the side because I have so much spare time I don’t even know what to do with myself.  In addition to doing regular concert previews and reviews for Austinist, and writing feature interviews for Soundcheck Magazine, for the last four months I’ve been running a weekly album review column for Transmission Entertainment called Hot Off the Press, which discusses in sometimes-professional, sometimes-notsomuch manner incredibly new albumsabout half the time the albums are reviewed before they are released to the public, a luxury I have due to a combination of media hook-ups and blatant theft of unpublicized leaks.

The result of this is that I’m often way ahead of the game on albums, thus providing some of the initial “hype” or “bust” sentiment stewing around the internet, and that I am often reviewing albums before I really have a damn clue what I’m talking aboutthere are a couple rethinkers (I should have given You & Me more time, and the early weeks of HOTP are pretty thin), but for the most part I think I got it right the first go’round.  So, without further ado, here is a considerable list of links (click the red to be magically transported to the full review), in reverse chronological order:

16: Women & Pit Er Pat

Women (Women): “…there is a very thick haze of early Animal Collective-ness populating this album, as you can almost see the two groups together—long before AC’s electro-obsession took full hold—bounding around a campfire in loincloths, shaking tambourines and scaring children…” Report Card: B+

Pit Er Pat (High Time): “…the big problem here is that while 2006’s Pyramids seemed like an album maybe ahead of its time, High Time, an almost uncomfortably ironic title, feels like an album that’s hit the shelves a good five years too late…” Report Card: C

15: Crystal Stilts & Times New Viking

Crystal Stilts (Alight of Night): “…it’s as if the woe woe woe of Crystal Stilts’ approach is so draped in mascara tears that fans have no choice but to bob their heads in utter happiness that they found something so compulsively hip-shaking and degenerate…” Report Card: B+

Times New Viking (Stay Awake EP): “…it’s difficult to figure if what Times New Viking is doing makes any sense—after all, it’s impossible not to wonder whether they would be “better” if they stopped recording on such shitty equipment…” Report Card: B

14: Deerhoof & Megapuss

Deerhoof (Offend Maggie): “…despite oft-indiscernible lyrics, the obscurity of their songs, and a distinct lack of sex appeal, Deerhoof has successfully built an adoring fan base, and these realities make it all the more mystifying and disappointing that Offend Maggie lacks the spikes in extreme glee that their last couple albums have provided so willingly…” Report Card: B

Megapuss (Surfing): “…in many ways, Devendra Banhart and Greg Rogove’s album is juvenile, senseless, random, filthy, awkward, head-scratching, and sometimes just plain stupid.  And yet, despite all of these fitting adjectives, Surfing works…” Report Card: B+

13: Juana Molina & Final Fantasy

Juana Molina (Un Día): “…through its sheer bombast and ambition, Un Día is bound to find a wider and more enthusiastic American audience than her previous efforts—songs such as the title track and “Los Hongos de Marosa” are so stunning it’d be a shame if American audiences didn’t catch on…” Report Card: A-

Final Fantasy (Plays to Please EP & Spectrum, 14th Century EP): “…frontman Owen Pallett is one of those wildly bright and frustratingly eccentric types, and these two EPs expand upon the already iconoclastic canon he has constructed, as he uses additional manpower to back his stunning string arrangements with the familiar-but-300-years-old sounds of chamber music…” Report Card: B

12: TV on the Radio & Cold War Kids

TV on the Radio (Dear Science): “…the melodrama in TV on the Radio’s music regularly foams over the surface, and although the hugeness of their approach may turn some fickle listeners off at first blush, repeated listens will draw in even the most skeptical fans of singer-songwriters and sparse arrangement…” Report Card: A

Cold War Kids (Loyalty to Loyalty): “…Cold War Kids are so divisive even your grandparents argue over whether they are the shining light of new soul rock come down from above to lead us all into a new era of heartfelt tunesmanship, or whether they are a bunch of underschooled and self-absorbed fools with an editing deficiency who are example 1A of blog bands gone painfully awry…” Report Card: B-

11:Peter Bjorn and John & Grouper

Peter Bjorn and John (Inland Empire): “…Seaside Rock is a testament to a band who’s willing to say a little bit of ‘fuck you’ to the slavering masses, a testament that declares that musical integrity and continued exploration are more important to this band than a continued assault on the tender eardrums of the thoughtless youth. Either that or they’re running away, like pansies, from expectations…” Report Card: B

Grouper (Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill): “…if it weren’t for the fact that Grouper makes her music almost impossible to hear on purpose, you’d really want to suggest that she find a better producer, or at least stop strumming the guitar seventy feet underwater…” Report Card: B-

10: Department of Eagles & Fight Bite

Department of Eagles (In Ear Park): “…while the ups can be pretty spectacular, In Ear Park is ultimately done in by its questionable revision—one almost gets the feeling that Rossen and Nicolaus felt rushed to get this out while the hype is high…” Report Card: B-

Fight Bite (Emerald Eyes): “…while the band name Fight Bite may conjure up images of Mike Tyson, crazed look in his eyes, with a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in his mouth, this music couldn’t be further from that image. If anything, the image that’s brought up is one of Tyson and Holyfield walking through a garden of daisies, perhaps holding hands…” Report Card: A-

9: Of Montreal

Of Montreal (Skeletal Lamping): “…and only then did it become easier to accept the possibility that [Kevin Barnes had] not lost himself completely in a bizarre world of cocks, asses, and transgender dance parties wildly galloping through the thesaurus…” Report Card: B+

8: The Bug & Kemialliset Ystävät

The Bug (London Zoo): “…while the scowl this album wears makes much hardcore rap look like child’s play, the album’s polarizing effects are a sign of its ingenuity—Martin’s sensibilities regarding darkness and repetition make it the perfect collection of anthems for sneering and cursing as you cut off other drivers on the highway…” Report Card: A

Kemialliset Ystävät (Harmaa Laguuni): “…this particular collection of sounds is a little less shocking to the ears than their prior studio work; that’s not to say, though, that it won’t elicit plenty of ‘what the hell are you listening to’ comments from passersby, because it certainly will…” Report Card: B-

7: Vivian Girls & The Music Tapes

Vivian Girls (Vivian Girls): “…Vivian Girls’ clattering, energetic approach to punky two minute pop-rock is befitting of the web’s fawning, and surely soon enough the Brooklyn trio (all women, no less) will be the darlings of a wider populus…even if the album as a whole doesn’t thrill as fabulously as the first couple singles would have you believe…” Report Card: B

The Music Tapes (Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes): “…what good possibly could come from Koster’s collection, being that he is notoriously obsessed with the singing saw, of all random instruments, that he personally has never released a truly proper LP, and that he’s been working on this album for nine freaking years?…” Report Card: B

6: Lackthereof & Conor Oberst

Lackthereof (Your Anchor): “…notable because they are the primary project of Menomena member Danny Seim, Lackthereof makes music that sounds like a Menomena song lying prone on the studio room floor, like an engine taken totally apart and put only a little bit back together…” Report Card: B-

Conor Oberst (Conor Oberst): “…as his growing pains have presented themselves to the listening public, that incredible urgency has gone missing in his work, and to some critics he’s been relegated to has-been status—a time capsule at the ripe old age of twenty-eight…” Report Card: C-

5: Bodies of Water & Russian Red

Bodies of Water (A Certain Feeling): “…rarely has an album truly jumped out and demanded to follow in the bombastic footsteps of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s Canadian outfit, while still being talented and unique enough not merely to seem like parrots.  But A Certain Feeling has that quality to it…” Report Card: A

Russian Red (I Love Your Glasses): “…words of wisdom for the listener are twofold: #1 if you listen to this album, start with track two so you don’t get your hopes too high, and #2 Hernández is only twenty-two years old, so she still has plenty of time to be the world-conqueror I’d hoped her already to be…” Report Card: B

4: The Walkmen & Grizzly Bear

The Walkmen (You & Me): “…the band, as usual, is pretty tight and on cue, and this album sees them expanding their oft-old-timey sound a bit, but, as usual, they rarely make the listener reflect with amazement on the awesomeness of their instrumental achievements…” Report Card: B-

Grizzly Bear (Two Weeks’ television debut): “…Two Weeks, a sparkling if simple track, is cloaked in reverb and is guaranteed to sound better on the fifth listen than it did on the first…” Report Card: A

3: Au & Pyramids

Au (Verbs): “…some of it sounds like little more than a bunch of people tuning their instruments or screwing off pre-rehearsal, but when the noises this flock of musicians creates come together into a song, the results can be pretty damn pleasing…” Report Card: B

Pyramids (Pyramids): “…although Pyramids aren’t likely to find themselves on the cover of Spin magazine anytime soon (hell, they hardly turn up on a Google search), they have potential, and with a broadening of their sound they should start to make themselves the first ‘Pyramids’ band you think of, rather than the fourth…” Report Card: C+

2: White Denim & Black Kids

White Denim (Workout Holiday): “…this garage-y business gets down to the brass tacks of dirty rock, with sloppy and simple construction and frequent breakdowns, and it’s not unlikely that your first listen will seem a bit pale for all the praise.  But when it comes down to it, this is some very, very good stuff, and once it gets its energetic claws into you, you’ll have a hard time taking it off the iPod…” Report Card: A-

Black Kids (Partie Traumatic): “…While this is an album with lovely songs for a club rotation, for any other of the myriad purposes for listening to music—such as passing the time while driving on I-35 during rush hour—chances are that the absolute lack of irony will wear thin quite quickly…” Report Card: C

1: Beck & The Fiery Furnaces & Ponytail

Beck (Modern Guilt): “…despite the skepticism—fueled by his diminishing live performance as he nears forty—sure enough, like most all Beck releases, Modern Guilt gets its claws into you, and after a tepid first few listens, it starts to hold together quite well as a collection…” Report Card: B

The Fiery Furnaces (Remember): “…put very simply: if you’re not already a fan of Fiery Furnaces, this release will just solidify your disgust for them.  But if you’re already a fan of Fiery Furnaces, you’ll probably just wish they would’ve found some not-so-shitty recording equipment for this ambitious project…” Report Card: C

Ponytail (Ice Cream Spiritual): “…despite the occasionally awesome interplay between these ‘instruments,’ this is an album that’s going to be hard-pressed to survive multiple spins in a row without becoming a burden on sensitive ears…” Report Card: B-

Band Interview: Caribou

Caribou is the brainchild of Dan Snaith, a man who grew up in Ontario and got his PhD in mathematics in England (check out a PDF of his impressive and practically unpronounceable thesis here), all the while developing his own brand of retro-influenced electronic pop. His mode the last few years has turned more and more towards what the layman would call “songs,” and the change has resulted in some of the best music of the last half-decade. In an effort to further understand how a man gets his PhD and then tours the world supporting electronic pop music, we had ourselves a little chat with Dan, who proved to be just as smart as he sounds.

One thing I absolutely had to know about regards your PhD—I saw that you specialized in Algebraic number theory, and I found your thesis online, and…Overconvergent Siegler modular symbols? Sounds pretty intense. I was wondering if you could tell me about that?

Well, I can, but it’s not something I can explain, really. It’s not something that’s applied—which is kind of why I like it—it’s completely abstract. It’s not applicable to anything in the real world. None of those words make any sense because, without, you know, taking a course and learning a few definitions and thinking about math and learning more about it—it’s real cumulative and it’s something that’s impossible to explain in any two sentences that make sense.

Yeah, I was looking through your thesis desperately seeking even two sentences that a non-mathematician could say aloud.

It’s like it’s this whole separate world that’s fully inaccessible. And I think somehow that that’s what I like about it.

Something that’s purely theoretical?

Exactly. In some ways it’s really self-indulgent. It’s just for the fun of doing it and for the challenge of working on it.

But I think it’s good that people still do things not just because it’ll get them a job, but they do these things because they enjoy them.

You’ve said in the past that your music is not mathematics, but aesthetics. But even with that in mind, how do you think your mathematical background has influenced your music?

I don’t think it influences my music directly, but the things I like about mathematics and music are the same things. They’re both kind of creative and they’re both kind of individual pursuits. But although I enjoy the same things about both of them, I don’t think there’s any way in which the mathematics affects the music. As far I can see anyway.

If math and music are two separate worlds wholly, how do you think you would describe your aesthetic taste?

It’s really hard to say. I guess I would say that I have a tendency to like things that are kind of layered or more messy sounding or maximal sounding rather than spare minimal music, music that’s more based on space. I tend to like music that’s full of lots of things going on that create a big world of sound or whatever—lots of different surprises and interesting sounds interacting that are based on simple elements. But yeah, it’s hard to say. And even that stuff’s not entirely true.

I think there are so many things to like about music and so many different reasons to get excited about making music, and that’s the reason I’ll never get bored doing this. Each time I can think about something different when I’m making the record or when I hear new music, and it can surprise me. It never gets boring because there are so many different elements that are exciting.

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Album Review: Forces by Silver Pines

Silver Pines have one big thing going for them. And, no, it’s not that their band is based in the lonesome burg of San Marcos, Texas, which at more than a half-hour away is always looking up at Austin with the starry eyes of the semi-isolated college town. That one big thing Silver Pines have going for them is that their haunting, forever-reverberating songs are often pretty exceptional, and everyone who’s heard them seems to agree that something special is going on down I-35. Last year’s Fort Walnut EP served as an excellent introduction to the band, but this year’s Forces EP broadens their sound without compromising what made their earliest work so satisfying. Using all the best of country music—slide and even a singing saw make appearances—without falling prone to the genre’s more troubling cheesy aspects, the stage-taking septet crafts only the most gentle of tunes, and that sincere gentleness remains true even when the full strength of the band is involved.

The linchpin here is lead singer Stefanie Franciotti, whose calming presence both on the album and on stage allows the rest of the band to do its finest work. Her voice is forever distant, not unlike that of a long lost lover, or of other newly-revered vocalists such as Beach House’s Victoria Legrand or Fight Bite’s Leanne Macomber, and its pleading pain or burgeoning enthusiasm acts as the band’s most captivating asset. But that’s not to discredit the rest of the band, which holds Forces together admirably with steady rhythms and the occasional dose of flash, such as the guitar freakout at the four-minute mark of the EP’s first track, “Timefather,” the rollicking conclusion of mid-disc standout, “Payasito,” and the blistering second half of the album’s most vicious track, “Fortress of Daughters.”

It’s difficult to see the career arc of a band who has yet to truly give the big city a spin, and college-based bands have a tendency to evaporate not long past graduation, but Silver Pines—if they so desire to continue unabated—have prepped themselves for significantly wider appreciation in the indie realm, especially as other country-influenced acts such as Fleet Foxes gain seemingly unstoppable momentum. And the Forces EP, clocking in at an economical twenty-eight minutes, is an undeniably solid step forward.

Silver Pines MySpace

Band Interview: Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent

This interview originally appeared on the Austinist on March 11, 2008.

Phosphorescent, the woodsy and brutally honest project of Brooklyn-by-way-of-Athens-and-Alabama musician Matthew Houck, used the strength of last year’s Pride to firmly establish itself as an act to be reckoned with. Combining haunting natural effects and skillful understatement, the album presents an intentionally rough-around-the-edges sound that has drawn complimentary comparisons to everyone from Dylan to Oldham. In advance of Phosphorescent’s three SXSW shows, including the Austinist/Gothamist get together on Wednesday, Matthew Houck spoke to us while snowed-in in New York.

So people listen to your music, and they get this idea that you’re some somber mystic, wandering through the forest in a pit of despair.

(laughs) Yeah, I see that.

How does that image compare to who you actually are as a person?

Well, I think music is one thing and life is another. To a certain degree I don’t really care all that much about what picture people might have of me as a person based on my music. They’d have to be kind of idiots to think that, really. No one really thinks you’re a certain way because of a song you sing, but then I might be way wrong about that. Maybe they do think that, and if they do there’s really, you know, I can’t spend too much time worrying about that.

You don’t really see your music as being necessarily your “heart,” but rather a separate product?

It’s not really separate, it’s just a specific part of it. It’s not a whole picture. It’s just a narrow little slice, of what you happened to write down that day, or you happened to sing. It’s not a full picture, and that’s fine. It’s not supposed to be a full picture. If every song you wrote was for the purpose of representing yourself as a complete human being, to the world, the song would be, I hope, more than three or four minutes long.

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Band Interview: Doug Martsch of Built to Spill

This interview appeared on the Austinist on February 29, 2008.

Alright, so Built to Spill is one of the greatest, most influential, and most acclaimed bands of the past fifteen years. There’s really no way around it. And for those of you who are a little late to the love-in, here’s a very small sample of some of the things that have been said about them:

“A band whose talent and proficiency at times seem[s] boundless.” –Pitchfork Media

“Flawless.” –Trigger Magazine

“In short, he’s a talent more people ought to know about.” –Rolling Stone, on Doug Martsch

“Better than getting laid, finding God and winning the lotto combined.” –San Francisco Weekly, just last week when discussing their live performance

So when a band like this comes to Stubb’s, as they do on March 2nd (along with famed Nirvana influences Meat Puppets, as well as Helvetia) you should pay attention. And that’s exactly what we did, to the point that we arranged a conversation with BTS frontman and fearless mastermind, Doug Martsch, a man whose honesty and candor proved as engaging as his music.

Back when Built to Spill first started coming out with albums, getting “big” in quotation marks, the music industry was a lot different, built around radio conglomerates, big time record labels, and word of mouth, but now everything’s downloading and blogging and MySpace. As someone who’s seen both sides of the shift, what do you think of the way the music industry is now compared to how it used to be?

I’ve never paid too much attention to it, but I think it’s cool that people can share music. But to me, these record companies? I don’t feel bad for them at all. They argue that the artists are going to suffer and stuff but I think they’re full of shit. I think they’re just worried about themselves. I don’t think they care about the artists. And the artists will do fine, there are ways to sell your music, and big deal if you don’t sell your music? Who cares if the artists don’t have mansions and shit, you know? Why shouldn’t the artists just make music in their free time and just have regular jobs like anyone else? If you wanna make music you can go tour—there’s no way that they can get into your show for free. These record companies just dominated for so long they’re just scrambling, and I don’t feel bad for them at all.

It was the establishment and now they realize they’re not necessary anymore, so they’re trying to stop it at all costs.

Yeah, and they abused their position. They totally milked people, they milked the public. They charged people way more than they ever needed to for records. You can’t feel bad for them.

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Band Interview: Yoni Wolf of WHY?

This interviewed originally appeared on the Austinist on March 7, 2008.

Lurking in the near, near future is the album Alopecia, the strange, provocative, and incredibly engaging new album from Why?, a Bay Area band that seems to be ticketed for a whole new bunch of notoriety, right quick. While Why? in the past has often incited listeners to, well, invoke the name of the band–mostly because of scattershot verbosity and music that seemed more pieced-together than refined–they’ve pulled all their unbridled talent together into a cohesive and coherent, not to mention very good, whole. And, seeming as they’re going to be tromping all about Austin’s stomping grounds next week for SXSW, we sent out some questions to lead figure and wordsmith Yoni Wolf. You know, just to see what he’s all about.

Alopecia! Your most accessible and genre-confounding record yet, it seems like Why? is poised for a much wider audience. What, to you, makes this album different or more broadly accessible than your earlier work?

Well, I think we got our shit together a bit more this time in most every aspect of process: songwriting, arrangements, pre production, recording, mixing, mastering–the whole shebang. I think we were just somewhat more prepared every step of the way because we’ve been through it all a couple of times now.

You grew up in Cincinnati, but didn’t really find your crowd musically until you moved to San Francisco. Looking back as an adult, what about your Cincinnati experience made you the musician you are today?

I think everything I am today is based on my upbringing somehow, be it Cincinnati, Messianic Judaism, my high school friends, my siblings, my parents…

Okay, here’s academic question #1. In “Song of the Sad Assassin,” you start off by saying “we lifted the body from the water like a gown,” which is a really kick-ass metaphor. How do metaphor and image work for you in your music?

I use metaphors and images like they are gonna go out of style any minute: with frequency and in great abundance. I can’t get enough. Metaphors and images are really great tools.

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Album Review: Women as Lovers by Xiu Xiu

Xiu Xiu are what many would call a success story. After all, they’ve evolved from an experimental, rotating-cast freakshow who appealed only to the outer edge of musical snobs and depressed hipsters, to a full-on, Xiu Xiu Women as Loversfour member, MySpace friendly, blog-writing, book- producing, ceaselessly collaborating, networking whirlwind with legions of fans and the respect of critics. Not only that, but unlike some rise-to-glory stories, Xiu Xiu’s transformation has been nice to see, mostly because founding member Jamie Stewart and able sidekick Caralee McElroy always seemed to be having a lot of fun, connecting well with their fans and managing to maintain their sense of humor and their honesty.

But somewhere along the path to Women as Lovers, Xiu Xiu lost a little bit of their subtlety. Though all the band’s hallmarks—the experimentation, the grab-bag electronics and waves of unconventional percussion, the impassioned vocals complete with über-weirdo lyrics—are still there, something vital is missing. Could it be that fame, success, and comfort corrupted Xiu Xiu’s artistic process? That doesn’t seem to fit the still-odd Stewart and McElroy. But what about those two new permanent band members—could they have caused an unnecessary bloating of the music, as if the band weren’t quite ready to absorb all the new hands in the studio? Quite possibly. Regardless of cause, one of the most endearing aspects of Xiu Xiu—their utter vulnerability—has been replaced with a steady confidence.

This is not to say that Women as Lovers is a bad album. It is actually quite fine, as it has enough strangeness to appeal to those who appreciate strangeness, and enough adorableness to appeal to those who appreciate adorableness. Lead track “I Do What I Want When I Want,” complete with shared vocals, a near-perfect progression, no shortage of surprise, and Ornette Coleman-style saxophone, is a fantastic art-pop song. “No Friend Oh!,” whose title hearkens back to earlier albums, is a joy and experience to hear, a song with just enough head-shaking moments to feel like true-to-life Xiu Xiu. “Black Keyboard,” despite its disturbing lyrics, and “You Are Pregnant You, You Are Dead” are also excellent additions to the band’s catalog.

With all that strength, it’s hard to see what doesn’t feel right about this album. But something definitely isn’t quite right, and there’s a good chance the problem lies with the cover song blaring from the album’s center. “Under Pressure,” the David Bowie standard whose beat was made doubly famous by Vanilla Ice, makes for a well-done and interesting cover, all the way down to the exceptional vocal turn by Angels of Light and ex-Swans frontman Michael Gira. But what happens is that Women as Lovers feels less like a complete album and more like a collection of songs. Other moments in the album, including the irritating “Puff and Bunny,” in which Stewart repeats the words “hot pepper” a painful number of times, also lead to the disconnected feel of the album. And this effect, especially in comparison to their previous albums, is pretty jarring.

So it seems this is what happens when a band has established itself as being really, really good—they release an album that is only merely good, and people are annoyed. But that’s the price to pay for success—you better not display imperfection, because if you do you’ll be called on it. And so it is with Xiu Xiu, one of the most excellent and fascinating bands of the decade, and one that still holds that trophy. Even if the trophy isn’t quite as shiny as it used to be.

Xiu Xiu [Official] [Label] [MySpace] [Download Site]