Wednesday, April 28, 2010


After forcing myself to listen to Animal Collective for the longest time, it is nothing short of refreshing to wipe my brain's palate clean by re-acquainting myself with Annie's Anniemal, the Norwegian electronic pop songsmith terrific debut. It's easy to see why the likes of Pitchfork gushed over this record when it finally dropped in 2004. What's terrific about the record is the indie rock production values; some of the tracks sound like Janet Jackson with a turntable and a four-track. Annie's not the best singer in the world, but she's also smart enough to understand this, burying her vocals underneath beats and basslines and synth-loops.

But it's hard not to hear melancholy in songs like “Heartbeat” once you're aware of her backstory. Annie and boyfriend Tore Kroknes, an up-and-coming producer in the house scene across the pond and over the sea, recorded “The Greatest Hit,” and quickly garnered acclaim in their home country before Kroknes died at age 23 from heart complications. Recorded in Röoyksopp's borrowed studio, “The Greatest Hit” samples Madonna's “Everybody” and was released as a 7” inch single on Telle records in 1999. It quickly sold out, catching the attention of producer Richard X, who asked her to contribute to his compilation and in return, produced two of the songs on her eventual album. After Kroknes's death, Annie understandably took five years to complete her album, and as was her aim, the songs don't sound any more dated than the day they were recorded, which is damn near miraculous for a pop record.

“Heartbeat” is one of the best singles of the decade, three minutes of aching and yearning for an old lover to return to the dance floor, and may be the saddest electro-pop song you've ever heard.

“My Love is Better,” is lone non-Anniemal song on my ipod, and it's the kind of delicious pop Annie does best, seething with the same sort of confident personality she displayed in “Chewing Gum.” I had actually forgotten I downloaded this song sometime last year and I am now reminded to check out her new album.

Wire - 154

Release Date: September, 1979

★★★★★ Tracks:

The 15th

On Returning

I hadn't ever given this record a chance because, up until just a couple of weeks ago, I didn't even like its predecessor. What I did remember of 154 the first (and probably only) time I heard it was that they reinvented themselves all over again, and I wasn't happy with the results. But with a different outlook on Wire's post-Pink Flag output, I could come in to 154 the second time around with a more appreciative ear.

The first thing that strikes me is the ever-increasing presence of bassist and vocalist, Graham Lewis. While his name appears in the credits a couple of times on the previous two records, he is responsible for writing close to half the songs here. And whereas we usually hear him contribute with the occasional back-up vocals, on 154 he takes lead on all the songs he wrote. As admirable as it is that Wire continually updates their sound, this time by adding a new voice to the fold, I'm just not sure I'll ever warm up to Lewis's gothic, spoken-word style lead vocals.

However I learned my lesson with Chairs Missing not to give up on a Wire album based off of a few listens. The two previous records didn't floor me on first impression, and 154 is no different. By the time I got acquainted with a few of Colin Newman's tracks, I found myself adding them to my favorite playlist. No matter how punk rock Wire might be, Newman can write a killer pop hook, as evidenced in "the 15th."

154 could include Newman's softest material to date, but it's all pretty phenomenal. And songs like "On Returning" and "Map Ref 41°N 93°W" also have that defining Wire punk-rock sound I've grown so fond off.

I'm definitely going to be keeping this record, I already like the "Newman half" of it. As for Graham, I'm just not a fan of his work like I am Newman's, or both of theirs collaboratively. Still, I hated Chairs Missing for quite a while, and now I think it just about matches Pink Flag punch for punch. So maybe I'll revisit this yet again a year or so down the road and absolutely love it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wire - Chairs Missing

Release Date: August, 1978

★★★★★ Tracks:

Another the Letter


Outdoor Miner

I downloaded Chairs Missing soon after I heard Pink Flag, looking forward to another 18 tracks of chaotic punk rock. But that's not anything close to what I got. Where's all that sloppy guitar distortion I loved? Where's the speed? What happened to the minute long punk songs? What's with the synthesizer? What the hell happened to Wire?! After a few spins I shelved it (or unchecked it, in iTunes terms), thinking Wire had gone soft. And I came in to this post fully prepared to take a nice bloggy shit all over Chairs Missing.

After my first time re-listening through, sometime last week, I was still pretty sure I felt the same way about it. By the second time, without my knowing it, my foot, like it had a mind of its own, began tapping to the slow-building momentum of "Heartbeat." As I noticed I quickly stopped myself, cursing at my foot for sending conflicting thoughts to my mind. Now I couldn't help but pay closer attention, and almost to my dismay, I found bits and pieces of songs I began to like: "Another the Letter's" synths were actually great, "Men 2nd" had a great guitar riff and a distinct rockabilly feel to it. And then I got to "Outdoor Miner," something of an ode to Velvet Underground, and I was hooked. I woke up the next morning and all I could think was 'I can't wait to play Chairs Missing on my commute to work.' No use resisting it.

You got me Wire.

Chairs Missing is easily one of the strangest records I have ever heard. The first track, "Practice Makes Perfect," sounds like it could be the background music to a horror film, with eerie guitars and click-calickity drums, demonic sounding laughter, and ever-increasing panic in Colin's voice as he screams "Waiting for us!," which slowly builds in to anti-climactic chaos. It's not even close to one of my favorites on the album, and exemplifies why first impressions based off of one song can really hurt a record's chances of ever reeling you in. But isn't it ballsy to start off your sophomore release with a track as weird as this one?

"French Film Blurred" begins with another dark, creepy guitar riff and combines with Colin Newman's gloomy voice, and again, it consistently builds but never quite punches it home. The first thrown changeup and a personal favorite comes next, the synth fueled 1:08 long, "Another the Letter." "Men 2nd" gives us a reminder Wire is a punk rock band before we're warped back in to yet another anti-climactic track in "Marooned," a disturbing song about a sailor. And by now one might gather one of Wire's primary intentions for Chairs Missing -- to make a record of constant chaotic tension and unease; to create a sort of musical anxiety that is rarely relaxed. The best track on Chairs Missing and one of the best examples of Wire's intentions is "Heartbeat," which has the feel that it's going to break loose at any moment, but just adds a sliver of a payoff. It makes it all the more addicting to keep coming back to:

"I feel icy
I feel cold
I feel old
Is there something here behind me?
I'm sublime

I feel empty
I feel dark
I remark
I am mesmerized
By my own beat
Like a heartbeat
(In it's own beat)"

Wire add a couple upbeat and not-so-gloomy tracks in to the mix as well, and somehow they fit in perfectly. "Sand In My Joints" and "Another the Letter" are examples but "Outdoor Miner" is the biggest outlier. A throwback to the 60's, it's probably the poppiest song Wire had written yet:

There's no doubting Chairs Missing isn't for everyone. Shit, it wasn't even for me until just last week. To say this album requires patience is a vast understatement, and an interesting exercise on how easily I/we can give up on a record based off of minimal exposure. Once I found a couple of tracks to latch on to, I really began to appreciate what Wire was attempting to create: a slow-building, tense and creepy art-rock record that rewards listeners for repeated listens. I can see how Wire continues to influence modern rock with Chairs Missing. I hear Fugazi again in "Heartbeat," I hear TV On the Radio in "Used To," I can hear its influence on goth and industrial rock, and I can still hear those punk rock roots embedded within. While Pink Flag still has the upper hand, Chairs Missing, just from my time with it in the past week, has definitely become the more interesting record of the two. I'm not quite sure I've ever experience a rock record quite as weird as Chairs Missing, and I'm not sure I ever will.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Animal Collective

I tried, I really did. I've spent the time since my last post listening to little but Animal Collective, in an attempt to fulfill what the great A.V. Club calls a “social obligation,” pieces of culture that the supposed enlightened among us are supposed to endorse, like watching The Wire or seeing Avatar in the theater. I've spent the last few years trying to at least appreciate Animal Collective, if not love them. After all, everyone else in the world does except for and they're supposed to be in the conversation for Best Band in the World, so I must be missing something, right?. But I've been re-listening to the most-played songs on lala and re-reading reviews, looking for clues as to just what it is that I'm missing about this band. I'm still looking. It's not that I don't like them, I just don't get the big deal.

“The Purple Bottle” was my introduction to AC, put on a mix tape given to me by a friend and I thought it was the delirious kind of upstart, chaotic rock-n-roll that I dig. I bought Feels, hoping for more of the same and while “Grass” is another great track in a similar vein, I couldn't help but think that the album feels (heh) like an anti-climatic Funeral. It's still a darn good record, and easily my favorite of their records. But as far as my listening habits are concerned, that's really not saying much. Feels may be like my 854th favorite record ever, but that also means I never listen to it.

Sung Tongs is where the Animal Collective really test my patience. Sometimes it's boring (“The Softest Voice”), (“Kids on Holiday”). Sometimes it's a bit grating and obnoxious (“Mouth Wooed Her”). Sometimes some of it is actually pretty okay (“Who Could Win a Rabbit”). There are songs I only like parts of (“Winter's Love”) but I found myself waiting for the end of the last song (“Whaddit I Done”).

Merriweather Post Pavillon is the one that all the kids and blogs and magazines named as the bestest record of 2009, according to metacritic. It's hailed as something ground-breaking by some but for a band as sonically adventurous as Animal Collective, they sure tend to stay in one place often. It's the AC's attempt at a dance album and to me, something of an acquired taste. It took well over a half a dozen plays by my ipod's count for this record to grow on me and even now, it's not something I'm sure I'll be coming back to often. But that doesn't mean MPP may not be like my 926th favorite record ever.

Of course, this blog wouldn't be living up to its name if there weren't some stray Animal Collective tracks that I don't remember downloading. “Slippi” and “Take” are monotonous and annoying, basically everything I hate about the AC but “People” is actually quite lovely, a rare moment in their discography where its repetitive bars are welcome. And “Baby Day” is bluesy, fun song, as close to rock-n-roll as the Animal Collective gets. It makes me wonder if I should be paying more attention to the b-sides and EP tracks instead of spending my music-listening minutes forcing myself to get into Animal Collective albums.

Animal Collective are nothing if not challenging. The rewards are there but immediacy shouldn't be expected. There's nothing wrong with weird, challenging bands and while I like weird and challenging, I'm also a child of the MTV era and an adult in the ipod era. Since I like instant gratificationy rock-n-roll, I tend to appreciate bands like Animal Collective much more than I listen to them.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wire - Pink Flag

Release Date: December, 1977

★★★★★ Tracks:

Three Girl Rhumba

Ex Lion Tamer



I picked up this bad boy on vinyl a while back, as it's simply one of the best punk records ever. Pink Flag practically invented an entire genre of punk-rock and hardcore that blew up in the 80's. Black Flag and its most prominent member, Henry Rollins, list them as an influence. The Circle Jerks, Gorilla Biscuits, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys and many, many others are direct disciples of Pink Flag, borrowing the moody punk sound and the brisk song length. And I'm pretty sure you could find a teenage Ian MacKaye playing guitar in his bedroom, spinning this record, probably drawing "X's" on his hands, and gathering ideas for two of the 80's and 90's most influential alternative groups, Minor Threat and Fugazi. "Lowdown" especially sounds like it could fit in one of Fugazi's early records:

Before Pink Flag was released in 1977, punk rock was still in its stages of infancy, and at that time still upbeat and poppy for the most part. The Ramones were said to have been channeling pop and surf rock from the Beach Boys, surely most of us hear traces of the Kinks and the Stones when listening to the Sex Pistols, and the Clash we're experimenting with some of the most upbeat music you could find in reggae. While all these artists we're punk's founders, Wire expanded its boundaries even further. Yea, they continued in the tradition of politicizing the lyrics and building a lot of their tracks using the increasingly popular "power chord." But make no mistake about it, Wire added their very own take to the genre. First, they stripped the music down to it a very raw form: one guitar, one bass guitar, drums, and vocals, sometimes talked, sometimes sang, and sometimes screamed. With all the pieces in place, Wire crafted Pink Flag to be even heavier than any of the punk rock that preceded it, which many found -- with all of the guitar distortion, fast drum beats and blaring vocals -- to be overbearing to the ears already. They also condensed songs in to incredibly tiny packets, with five tracks clocking in at under 1:00, and only three (out of 21) over the 3:00 mark, none pass 4:00. The compact, short, guitar-driven track, and the emphasis of lyrics focusing on the decay of the democratic society would, and continues to be, a staple of punk rock music. Here's "Field Day For the Sundays," clocking in at a whopping 28 seconds (the youtube clip takes 5 seconds before the track begins):

"I wanna be a field day for the Sundays so they can fuck up my life.
Embarass my wife, and leave a bad taste.
That striped toothpaste can't remove on Monday mornings.
I wanna be a target for the dailies so they can show.
Pictures of me with a nude on page three, so lacking in taste.
Touched up near the waist, looking as limp as Monday morning."

Wire don't completely snub pop-lovers. With Pink Flag covering 21 tracks, there are a few upbeat songs that break the album's mostly brooding tone up nicely. And their most radio-friendly song on the album, "Mannequin," turns out to be my favorite of them all. Maybe that makes me some sort of poser, but c'mon, click below and tell me this isn't catchy! The lyrics, focusing on a person singer Colin Newman does not hold in high regard, contrasts the instrumentation with a good sense of humor.

There is no reason a self-proclaimed punk fan shouldn't give this record a few spins, at the very least. If you're a child of the 80's and 90's, and ever listened to Minor Threat, Fugazi, NOFX... shit, even Rancid or the Offspring, you are doing those bands a disservice by not seeking out their biggest influences: Wire, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and yes, the Clash (I'm not a huge fan of the Clash, so there goes my cred right out the window, I'm sure you'll tell me. But stick around and we'll get there eventually.). I could see strictly pop lovers having some reservations with a record full of heavy-hitting, politically and socialistically charged 1:00 long punk tracks. But Pink Flag would eventually be an influence on the pop world as well: I don't think Green Day would be where they are now, American Idiot Broadway show and all, without the contributions of Wire, and especially Pink Flag.

Three Girl Rhumba video on tumblr.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Wrens - The Meadowlands

Release Date: September 9, 2003

★★★★★ Tracks:


This Boy is Exhausted

Every Year You Wasted

Boys You Won't Remember

I'll never get tired of a good break-up song. Fortunately the relationship I am currently in is still going strong. I'm not sure how she puts up with me, but no doubt I owe a lot to my experiences in the one other serious relationship I had, of which ended awfully. I'm sure most are familiar with the one I'm referring to: a relationship that everyone else but yourself and the person you are with can see will only end in complete misery. Still, it was my first love, and there was something good that came out of the whole mess. I passed that universal challenge everyone goes through at least once, and made it out the other side (after a few months of sulking and binge drinking, of course). It was like a right of passage in to adulthood -- an emotional badge of honor I could carry throughout the rest of my life.

Now I'm at the point where those feelings of hopelessness have completely diminished, and after not experiencing something so tumultuous as my first heartbreak in many, many years, I find myself occasionally even missing those newly acquired emotions. I became much more creative, buried myself in my studies, and most importantly, I finally truly understood all those great break-up albums for the first time. Blood On the Tracks turned out to be amazing, Beck's Sea Change was almost too heartbreaking to play all the way through, but I got it. Yes, perhaps it's just an immature (and most assuredly emo) romanticism of a completely unromantic situation, but I can't be the only one to think this way. No way every break-up record that's ever been sold could've gone to some poor bastard who just got dumped (right?...). And that's one of the thing that's so universally great about the break-up song: those of us going through one have someone to commiserate with, and those of us that have cleared that major hurdle life throws at us can look back and reminisce.

And that brings me to one of my favorite break-up songs of all time, "Happy" by the Wrens. The lyrics aren't earth-shattering, and by American Idol standards the singer doesn't have the strongest of voices, but this song is powerful: the instrumentation slowly building from beginning to end, the vocals sung with more and more emotion as each verse passes, until everything crescendos in to a poppy finale, possibly signifying the singer's success in getting over his heartache (or so he contends in his lyrics):

One of the other things I love about the Wrens is that they have more than one singer, giving us multiple perspectives on a single album. As I've gotten older, I've increasingly identified with the vocalist from "This Boy is Exhausted." A song about growing up and not being where you pictured you'd be as a kid, I think many a disgruntled nine-to-fiver can relate. Sure I went to college, and I can type, but a cushy desk job isn't where I dreamed I'd be (although I shouldn't complain too much since a lot of this post was typed at that very desk). It's always been my dream to write and record music, and at least the Wrens are doing that.

"Lock me in.
Tied to work.
Splitting rock
Cutting diamonds.
100 days.
With no pay.
Not anymore.
Cause I'm caught.
I can't type.
I can't temp.
I'm way past college.
No ways out.
No back doors.
Not anymore.
But then once a while.
We'll play a show.
Then it makes it worthwhile.
Our sights set low.
As Jerry squares off the set here we go.
But... this boy is exhausted."

The Meadowlands isn't the happiest of records. These guys have gotten older and jaded, and it's clearly displayed here on the record. For those of you who never like to experience occasional feelings of melancholia, this record is most likely not for you. And while most of my favorite tracks are the moodier slow jams, the Wrens lighten the mood with a few fun poppy tracks like "Faster Gun," "Shot Rock-Splitter to God" and "Nervous and Not Me." As for the music, if you don't mind nasally voices and production on a budget, you aren't going to find much better power-pop than what the Wrens offer here on The Meadowlands. There are some great arrangements, great use of dueling guitars, and great percussion, which sometimes falls to the wayside in pop bands like this. Provided by drummer, Jerry MacDonald, one of my favorite tracks, "Boys You Won't Remember," is a perfect example of his contribution to the band, with the drums single-handedly (or I guess doubly-handed would be the better term) sonically amplifying the song through each verse, giving the track its slow-building momentum.

Released in 2003, Meadowlands was largely recorded and produced in 1999, but due to label problems, it didn't make it's way to the public until four years later, minus the newly problematic "internet leaks" bands are now continually plagued with. However the four year delay only added to the anticipation, and they did not disappoint. Meadowlands is considered their best by most fans and critics alike, topping many lists of the year and decade by a few popular publications. As we know from the lyrics, these guys have day jobs, and they're probably closing in on their 40's, but I hope they find the time to come across the river and play another show soon, word is they put on quite the live performance.