Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The xx - xx

Release Date: March 30, 2009

★★★★★ Tracks:




Basic Space

It must be difficult to review an album for a popular publication. Not only are critics bound to write plenty of polarizing opinions, but they must often rush to judgement quickly, assuring their review is read near the time a record is released. The problem is that some albums take time to marinate, while others reveal they aren't nearly as good as we first thought they were. Rolling Stone reviewed Nirvana's Nevermind with mild interest at the time of its release, but added it to their top 20 albums of all time a decade later, a rather large change in opinion. Then on the other hand we have something like Bloc Party's Silent Alarm, which was praised by most critics in 2005, but does anybody really care about it anymore?

It will be interesting to see where the xx ends up. In the short term, catchy tunes alongside vast critical appraisal, especially that of Pitchfork's, have helped them in gaining a quick and large following -- selling out venues on their American tour, and even scoring a 2010 Winter Olympics commercial. But will it be something we'll continue to listen to a decade later? I think so. I played xx to death in the last half of 2009, loving almost every song on it. I shelved it for a few months but after re-listening I can say it still sounds as fresh as it did when I first heard it. The xx borrow elements from so many genres; composing a minimalistic and atmospheric mix of pop, rock and electro that's great for the morning commutes, as well as the late nights in the bedroom. From the opening "Intro," now a jingle to an AT&T commercial featuring Apolo Ohno, I was immediately hooked. It sounds dark and mysterious, building up to an infectious, head-nodding beat accompanied by a sleek guitar hook.

The "Intro" is followed by four incredibly strong tracks, a couple of which are unquestionably heard at the dance club, before reaching what sounds like it could be the score for a science fiction film in "Fantasy." And that's one of the things I love about xx, is that it can sound so otherworldly. My favorite track is "Basic Space," which exemplifies how the band's excellent arrangements combine whispered girl/guy vocals and sparse instrumentation to create a sound that's both intimate and spacious.

I'm pretty sure xx is something I will be listening to for years to come. I simply don't have anything on my mp3 player that sounds quite like them. One could argue that there isn't much variety from track to track, but for an album's worth of songs it doesn't suffer from tedium. It could be a problem when they begin writing a second album, but that's a discussion for another time. For now, the xx have created a nearly flawless record. That's something very few have been able to accomplish, and all the more impressive when considering this is the xx's very first attempt.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Yardbirds - Roger the Engineer

Release Date: July 15, 1966 (UK)

★★★★★ Tracks:

Psycho Daisies (reissue only)

I downloaded Roger the Engineer knowing only that the Yardbirds was the first band Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page was a part of. Being a fan of both (especially Page), not only did I want to hear some examples of their earliest recordings, but I thought it'd be rad to listen to both of them spend the good part of an album dueling it out on guitar. Well, I guess I should have read more about the album before I downloaded it. It turns out Clapton left shortly before its production, and Page, who was recommended by Eric to take his place in the band, didn't join until after the album was already written and recorded. The two of them were never members of the Yardbirds at the same time -- what a bummer. The mastermind of Roger the Engineer turns out to be Jeff Beck, who's catalogue I've never delved in to. My lack of familiarity with Beck, and the lack of Clapton's and Page's presence left me less interested, but I still attempted to listen with an open ear.

The tracks on Roger the Engineer are pleasant enough -- classic rock'n'roll in vain of Chuck Berry with a hard rock edge. No doubt Jeff Beck is an innovator, as the Yardbirds here sound like an early influence to heavy metal. But after listening through Roger the Engineer a few times, the songs just don't seem to stick with me. Still wanting to give it another chance, I decided to download the Roger the Engineer reissue, gave it a go'round, and found a gem. It contains a b-side to the single, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," called, "Psycho Daisies." Jimmy Page plays the bass guitar here, and I'm not sure he helped write the track, but it could easily slot in on one of Zeppelin's records. In fact it sounds a lot like "Communication Breakdown." It might also include one of the earliest recorded examples of a heavy metal guitar solo, which is pretty fucking cool.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Angels

48 plays! Oh, holy sweet christ, how I love this song. The second blog entry from One Kiss Leads to Another is The Angels' “I Adore Him,” and this personifies why I love both girl group and rock-n-roll. Everyone knows their biggest hit, “My Boyfriend's Back,” which spent 3 weeks at #1 in 1963. That song's aiight, I guess, but “I Adore Him” was the band's follow-up single, peaking at #25 and is about 25 times better than the song that made them famous. Every time I hear this, I find myself pressing repeat over and over.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Release Date: March 9, 2009

I feel like I've been talking about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for an eternity already. I want to move on, but It's Blitz! has been sitting on my iPod for quite some time and I said I would cover everything I have (as I scroll past John Mayer I realize this could get embarrassing). That being said, I'll try to be brief.

Rock turning electro isn't a new phenomenon. Acoustic guitars turned in to electric ones, punk bands turned to the futuristic sounds of synths and electronic drum machines, and in the post-Kid A era more and more rock bands are putting down their guitars and picking up their laptops. And just as in the 80's, when the market became over-saturated with synth-pop, we are currently being flooded with redundant electronic pop and rock inspired out of Radiohead's digital evolution.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs could fall under either of these previously mentioned categories; just as their earlier recordings are largely influenced by punk and garage, It's Blitz! sounds as if it's inspired by both the transformation of that late-70's punk rock, and the plethora of digital-pop currently being released. In order to follow in this now age-old pop music progression of rock to electro, an artist needs to add something new to the formula in order for me to really enjoy it. Not only does It's Blitz! fail in doing so, it also lacks any guilty pleasure replay value many of the earlier imitators have had.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Altyrone Deno Brown

Arrow Brown was quite the entrepreneur, a hustler whose house served as a harem for an uncountable number of women and created the long-gone Bandit Records out of Chicago, sometimes under rule of his pistol. The girls who were living in his house were taught to sing, and he seemed dead-set on making his son Altyrone Deno the next Michael Jackson. Altyrone Deno was only six years old when he cut “Sweet Pea,” his only song on The ABCs of Kid Soul, on the fantastic Numero Group label, who specialize in rescuing forgotten soul.

But for every Michael Jackson, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Altyrone Denos. Though the younger Brown would achieve some success as an actor and print model (he has a cameo in The Blues Brothers, and some sources claim he once won a Tony for an off-Broadway version of A Raisin in the Sun), he was last seen as a security guard in the 32nd largest building in the world, with a scrapbook of newspaper articles whose headlines once touted him as “Chicago's Answer to Michael Jackson.”

Passion can only fuel the American Dream so far, though, and for some reason, the elder Brown never seemed to tried to take his acts beyond the city lines, and boxes and boxes of records from the Bandit label were eventually thrown into an alley by a less-doted-on son of Arrow's. Indeed, “Sweet Pea” (12 plays and counting), does sound like a young MJ imitation, (not a bad thing), but the voice and production values are as raw as Altyrone's years.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

Release Date: March 27, 2006

Trying to put in to words what's wrong with Show Your Bones is difficult. I've been listening to it a lot over the past couple of weeks and I'm having troubles coming up with easy answers... Well, what's changed in the three years that separates the releases of Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones? One of the most obvious adjustments is made by Karen O, who has shed some of that aggressive, punk-angst she carried over the course of her earlier work in favor of a more mature approach to the vocals. It undoubtedly has a lot to do with the subject matter; this is Karen O's break-up album:
"I'm way out.
When you mean it on the inside you still can't get to me."

"Turn yourself around.
You weren't invited."

"Cheated by the opposite of love.
Held on high from up above."

"I've lost all reason from playing your games.
Better quit staring cause you're looking the same."
Lyrics were never the reason we were all listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and that hasn't changed. They just aren't very good, and seriously undermines Karen's intentions of creating a more personal record. To make matters worse, the more serious approach to the vocals takes the fun out of what made Karen O so intriguing to listen to in the first place, which was that punk-rock personality she exuded in her songs and the aggressive delivery of those lyrics.

The sound has also changed. David Sitek of TV on the Radio fame, who did an excellent job in co-producing Fever to Tell with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was also asked to contribute to the production of Show Your Bones. The curveball is the addition of Squeak E. Clean, a DJ and producer who's scored commercials and worked with the likes of Maroon 5 and Kanye West. The newly-formed trio add more gloss and sophistication to the sound; removing distortion from Karen's voice, adding acoustic guitars to at least half the tracks, increasing the presence of bass guitar, and removing a lot of that dirty-edgy-rock sound that was prevalent earlier. Sophistication and garage rock don't often go hand in hand, and it results in a band that sounds like a watered-down, imitation of its former self.

I'm all for a band evolving; it would be a bore for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to put out an album that sounds exactly like the first, but the steps they've taken in redeveloping their sound leave me uninterested. I'll keep a couple of the more engrossing tracks like "Cheated Hearts" and "I'm Way Out" but I'm sure I'll rarely listen to them. I'll be deleting the rest of the album, I only have 32gb to work with.