Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tool - AEnema

Release Date: September 17, 1996

★★★★★ Tracks:

Forty-Six & 2


My introduction to Tool was through the frightening video for “Sober” that frequented MTV in 1993. You know the one; a puppet even more disturbing than something from a Tim Burton movie mopes around a few ugly rooms and eventually shakes his hand uncontrollably. As a thirteen year old tuning in to watch Alternative Nation and Headbanger’s Ball as often as I could, seeing the video for “Sober” was similar to catching Friday the 13th or A Nighmare on Elm Street, the scary imagery and controversial subject matter (“Jesus, won’t you fucking whistle / Something but what’s past and done?”) scared me a little, but the taboo-qualities the video embodied invariably made it cool. With the parental advisory sticker as big and bright as day on the cover of Undertow, my parents wouldn’t dare buy me a copy. My friend Mike’s parents weren’t so strict however, and when I first heard the record another one of the tracks immediately caught my ear; “Prison Sex,” which would become a music video as well, we dug for the same reasons we enjoyed “Sober” -- it had a few cool riffs and it was kind of disgusting (“I have found some type of temporary sanity / In this shit, blood and cum on my hands.”).

By high school I had all but forgotten about Tool until I heard a new song of theirs circulating the airwaves sometime in 1997, and the eight-minute long “Eulogy” appealed to my anti-theistic views enough for me to go out and grab a copy. Initially I was floored, and for quite a few months there I couldn’t take the fucking thing out of my CD player. And so this is where I feel the need to preface my story: I was really in to LSD for most of my senior year. I mean it. We used to drop nearly every Saturday night, we’d drop during school field trips, we’d drop during road trips to Orlando, we’d even drop at school. It's not something I'm necessarily proud of but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a dominant aspect of my life when Tool was in the rotation, and with songs about wishing on the apocalypse, prying open a third eye, false martyrdom, and how Tool and Bill Hicks both agree hallucinogenics are good for music, AEnema represented the soundtrack to an LSD trip.

Having only heard AEnima a handful of times over the past decade I was looking forward to its entry in to the blog. A few times through and the instrumentation is just as good as I remembered it. Adam Jones, who most would agree isn’t a virtuoso, has a way of blending dropped tunings, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and pedal effects to gives Tool’s music its distinction. Danny Carey, on the other hand, is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, to hear him use his wide array of toms and cymbals, implementing double bass while occasionally guiding the group through odd time signatures is phenomenal. Justin Chancellor fleshes out the low levels with great bass lines that often sit at the forefront of Tool’s songs. With “H.” and “Stinkfist” I immediately hear what drew me in; there are some truly memorable hooks here. “Forty-Six & 2” has one of the best drum solos in contemporary rock music (whatever happened to drum solos anyways?), and “AEnema,” the most popular track included, has a legendary breakdown filled with images of tidal waves and meteors.

But overall revisiting Tool has led to disappointment. The problem resides in James Maynard’s vocals. I no longer relate to this shit at thirty years old. When I hear Bill Hicks’ speech and Maynard’s lyrics on “Third Eye,” I’m embarrassed that I spent so much time trying to decipher the philosophical (i.e. trippy) meaning behind its story. I’m not sure what all the snake imagery is supposed to suggest in “Forty-Six & 2” and “H,” but it just sounds corny. “Eulogy,” the song that got me to buy this record in the first place makes me cringe now; what used to sound like fist-pumping opposition to Christianity when I was seventeen years old as Maynard sings, “Come down / Get off your fucking cross / We need the fucking space / To nail the next fool martyr,” now sounds cold and offensive. And that’s just the problem: Tool is a band focused on social commentary, but their overall execution is poor. “Eulogy” could have been a great piece of religious criticism, instead it’s a seething attack on Jesus. “Stinkfist” appears to be a critique on over-stimulation, but its metaphorical relationship to fisting is overkill. Then there’s “Prison Sex,” a song that I thought was so cool as a kid because of its foul language is now utterly disturbing knowing the lyrics revolve around sexual child abuse.

I guess as I’ve grown up, I’ve grown out of some of the more pissed-off music I listened to. Unlike Beck's Odelay or Sublime's 40 oz., Tool doesn't remind me of the good times I was having with my buddies in senior year of high school, getting drunk and high and laughing my ass off, Tool reminds me of the trouble I was having with my family and friends, and the anxious uncertainty of where life was taking me after graduation. My only Tool fix going forward will probably come from their third single, "AEnema," the one song included that combines its social commentary with a little wit.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TV on the Radio - Dear Science,

★★★★★ Tracks:

Halfway Home
Dancing Choose
Golden Age

I pre-ordered TV on the Radio's third record in the summer of 2008 and couldn’t wait for it to arrive at my doorstep. What I immediately noticed when the needle hit the vinyl was they weren't content on playing it safe. The group continued to evolve with each passing record, using the increasing big label production budgets and studio technology at their disposal to recreate themselves all over again. Whereas Desperate Youth, Blood Sucking Babes is the sound of the urban sprawl and Return to Cookie Mountain is the "music you will listen to when the whole world burns up," Dear Science, (derived from a note Sitek wrote in the studio stating, “Dear Science, please start solving problems and curing diseases or shut the fuck up.”) is the dance party in its aftermath; a record even grander in scope and sleekness than its predecessor. Embracing their funk and electro-pop influences, Dear Science’s core is driven by a heavy dosage of percussion and multilayered vocals; their second single, “Dancing Choose,” finds Adebimpe bringing his rap skills to the table over a speedy off-kilter 4/4 drum beat, “Red Dress” is a full on funk explosion, complete with drum samples, bongos and blaring horns, and “Love Dog” pushes the beat to the forefront while Adebimpe questions and yearns for a God. Although Sitek’s guitars and samples aren’t as dominant here, his role as lead producer is unparalleled. If there is any ego to these guys it is contained in their quest to continually challenge music's boundaries.

Dear Science, not only finds TV on the Radio at their most resourceful but also their most playful. I’ve never delved in to Prince’s records but I can’t help but think a lot of songs were inspired out of his music when I hear the dance-inspired “Love Dog,” “Golden Age” and “Crying.” TVOTR has always embraced the funk but they've included more of their pop sensibilities here too, and with the help of a couple of strong singles, Dear Science, peaked at #12 on the Billboard charts, making this their most accessible record yet. With all that said I’m amazed by how many people haven’t given TV on the Radio a proper listen, or even heard of them. This record crosses so many genres I’d have a hard time believing anyone who couldn’t find something to like in it. My favorite song, and one that might just match “Staring at the Sun” as my favorite TVOTR track overall, is “DLZ.” Never a band to shy from social commentary, “DLZ” is riddled in criticisms of the great evil forces science has constructed and the politicians who wield them, Adebimpe speaks of “death professors” and “forcing fires” before he finally warns with his last line, “this is beginning to feel like the dawn of the luz of forever.”

DLZ was used at the end of an episode of Breaking Bad, which ended up being one of the best scenes of the season.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

★★★★★ Tracks:

I Was a Lover
Wolf Like Me

The best story behind TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain is hearing how David Bowie’s vocals ended up on “Province.” Sometime around 2003, Dave Sitek sold a painting to a man who happened to be Bowie’s doorman. During the exchange Sitek asked if the buyer might pass along a copy of the band’s demo to the illustrious songwriter, and not only did the doorman oblige, but Bowie took the time to listen to it and came out the other end a full-fledged fan. Shortly after TV on the Radio’s Young Liars EP was released, Sitek was at a gas station when he received a call. When the man on the other end claimed to be none other than David Bowie, Sitek promptly hung up the phone. The group apparently had a friend who liked to act out a lot of practical jokes and Sitek assumed this was one of them. Bowie had to call back two more times, finally stating, “No, I’m really David Bowie,” before the reality of it began to sink in. “He probably said some really important things that I was just too startled to pay attention to,” Sitek says.

Since then Bowie has advised the band in a number of ways, and when TV on the Radio finally began working on their landmark record Bowie joined the group in the studio to collaborate on a song of his choosing. When asked about the recording process of Return to Cookie Mountain, Sitek was quoted as saying he wanted to make “music you will listen to when the whole world burns up,” and nothing on the record ignites cataclysmic imagery more so than “Province” does, the song Bowie chose to collaborate on. The voices of Adebimpe, Malone, and Bowie blend apocalyptic metaphors with cautious words on the irrevocable path the country appeared to be headed under the Bush administration. Stirring underneath, a barren bass line and distant guitar melody explode in to a wall of sound at the chorus while all three of them begrudgingly croon, “hold your hearts courageously as we walk in to this dark place...” The dust eventually settles in to an eerie four note piano line.

Return to Cookie Mountain’s greatness has been written about everywhere, from being listed on countless “Records of the Decade” lists to being fully endorsed by some of the biggest recording artists ever. Not only is it critically acclaimed, but it also found TVOTR gaining mainstream traction, charting as high as #46 on the U.S. charts. The group quickly began appearing on shows like SNL and Letterman, rocking arenas and benefit concerts, and even contributing a downloadable track to the Rock Band series. It’d be difficult for me to pick a favorite TV on the Radio record, but if I had to recommend one it’d probably be Return to Cookie Mountain due to a few key tracks. “Province” has already been mentioned but “Wolf Like Me” is the catchiest of the bunch; another song that represents Adebimpe’s preference for imagery and metaphors over direct storytelling, carnal instincts towards lust and love predominate the lyrics he so ferociously spews. In the end though my favorite might just be the waltzy “Dirtywhirl,” one of the most intriguing, contemporary takes on old soul and doo-wop I’ve heard.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

TV on the Radio - Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes

★★★★★ Tracks:

The Wrong Way
Staring at the Sun
Don’t Love You

It was the summer of 2006 when I first moved to New York and it was the first time I heard TV on the Radio. The apartment my wife and I found bordered Sunnyside and Long Island City in Queens, and as I took my first adventurous walks around the urban sprawl that was my new neighborhood I would play “Staring at the Sun” on repeat, a song I had quickly become addicted to. It, along with the rest of Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, was unlike anything I had heard. Perhaps it was coincidental, but the record sounded like a sonic representation of the New York I read about and was now seeing for the very first time; the mish-mash of cultures in the outer-boroughs mimicked the mish-mash of musical styles; the social and political messages resounded in the city that surrounded me; the vibrant, busy activity contrasted perfectly with the more isolated lyrics; the subways, spray paint and Five Pointz street art blended with the group’s post-punk influences. I was playing the soundtrack to the city I was now calling my new home.

As I took a deeper look in to TV on the Radio’s history the connection between the group and the city grew stronger. They originally formed around Dave Sitek and Tunde Adebimpe, both transplants who moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s. It was around this time that the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs broke it big, hurtling in a New York city music revival that's still growing today. TV on the Radio continued the trend by setting up shop in a neighborhood that quickly grew in to the city’s music mecca, Williamsburg. The group caught the attention of many with their early recordings, prompting them to begin working with the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner and Liars’ Aaron Hemphill. But in my opinion, their pivotal moment came when Kyp Malone decided to join the band. Malone, a vocalist, guitarist, programmer, and Brooklyn native, really cemented TV on the Radio’s sound by adding additional guitar and programming, but most importantly, backing-up Adebimpe’s vocals with his signature falsettos. Between Dave Sitek’s phenomenal production, the group’s complex songwriting and lyricism, TV on the Radio had quickly developed in to one of the most interesting bands around.

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is considered the weakest collection of songs from TV on the Radio but I disagree with the sentiment. “Staring at the Sun” might still be my favorite overall track of theirs and although it was already released on the Young Liars EP, it’s the slightly altered version here I heard first and prefer. TVOTR's albums always start out with a bang, and “The Wrong Way” might be the best of them all. A blast of horns and a distorted bass line pave the way for a gorgeous piece of catchy, minimal electronica with Adebimpe tackling black stereotypes in his lyrics. “Dreams” is an eerily isolating song that sounds like it would fit along side some of Trent Reznor’s best work, and it wasn’t surprising to find out he guest appeared to sing it at one of their live performances. There are plenty more highlights here but none can trump the outstanding acapella track “Ambulance,” which contains some of the best lyrics TV on the Radio have ever written:

Oh i will be your accident
If you will be my ambulance
I will be your screech and crash
If you will be my crutch and cast
I will be your one more time
If you will be my one last chance
So fall for me

The last half of the record might rely a bit too much on their obvious Kid A-era Radiohead influences (TVOTR’s first record is entitled OK Calculator) but “Don’t Love You” and “Wear You Out” are both excellent nonetheless. Yes, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is not quite as grandiose as the two albums that would follow, but pound for pound there are just as many enjoyable moments here.