Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Antlers - Hospice

Release Date: August 18, 2009

Heavy on atmosphere and light on hooks, The Antlers’ Hospice was a critical darling in 2009 due to its aspirations and execution, but it lacks replay value. A sort of concept album based around the relationship between a hospice worker and terminally ill female patient, the ambition Peter Silberman writes with is admirable, but is this a topic that needed to be expressed in the format of a record? Songs like “Two” and “Bear” are lively enough to revisit, but overall Hospice too often feels claustrophobic and monotonous. To match the concept of the lyricism the tone is no doubt calculated, and no one can fault The Antlers on execution. Nursery rhyme-like synths dominate the songwriting, things build slowly, textures are added subtly, percussion is minimal, and Silberman’s croon is soft enough for perfect bedside manner. There is some debate as to how autobiographical and how fictional Hospice is, and this not only helped to add to the record's intrigue but also gave The Antlers an added amount of helpful publicity. But regardless of fact or fiction, dealing with the death of loved ones is one of the toughest things any of us has to go through. The Antlers should be applauded for providing a voice to those who might be going through the same thing. The thing is, I already went through the death of a loved one and I know I’ll go through it again; so do I need a record to act as a perpetual reminder?

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

Release Date: January 6, 2009

★★★★★ Tracks:
My Girls
Daily Routine

2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was a landmark record; its sound epitomizing the new decade’s acceleration towards rock and pop’s reliance on digital production. It’s also often been compared with the Beach Boy’s masterpiece, Pet Sounds, in its composure; a mix of pop, psychedelia and the use of latest sound production technologies, its ambition and its perceived responsibility in shifting the musical landscape. There are striking similarities in the lyrical content; how, in an age where American culture was shifting rapidly (with Pet Sounds paralleling the youth movement of the ‘60s, and MPP paralleling social media’s ascension in the new millenium), the Beach Boys and Animal Collective focused less on the cultural phenomena of the time, and more on the simple, timeless things in life like the pursuit of happiness and love, almost as if intentionally rejecting these pushes toward the future on the surface, with lyricism, while embracing them beneath, with instrumentation. AC no doubt intended on these similarities, and why not try and replicate a modern day version of one of the greatest records ever made? Most agree they succeeded; Merriweather Post Pavillion is one of the most universally acclaimed records of the past thirty years. So as a self-proclaimed music nerd it lends to the question I ask myself whenever I play MPP: why don’t I feel the same way?

But before I get to that let’s talk about the positives. The first single to be released, “My Girls,” is unquestionably one of the new millenium’s pivotal tracks. Panda Bear and Avey Tare sing of how they strive only to better the lives of their families while foregoing “material things” and “social stats.” Either culturally genius or circumstantially fortuitous (or both), Animal Collective nailed the symptoms of the upcoming years. “Summertime Clothes,” is the best example of their seamless explorations into electro-psychedelia, grounded by the simple, excellently delivered line, “I want to walk around with you.” “Daily Routine” combines a schizy blend of beats and synths before culminating into a gorgeous mix of dreamy samples and vocals. “In the Flowers” and “Also Frightened” are also solid. All of these highlights reside on the first half of the record, marking an admittedly strong half but giving way to a Side B of largely filler. I also think the accessibility of Animal Collective’s music here, even at their most straightforward, is overstated; it can often feel muddled, claustrophobic and, dare I say, a bit pretentious. But before I offend anyone (if anyone has read this far), perhaps I should admit that I prefer my rock and pop to contain guitars; some non-digital, organic instrumentation, and I always will. Being a skilled if unsuccessful guitarist (humblebrag?) for many years, my natural reaction has been to resist electronic music-- most likely some narcissistic survival instinct. And however much I might have become more open-minded to it over the years, I prefer a more accessible brand of electronic music than what MPP provides. The thing is though, as a fan of all music and its place in history I’d be ignorant to suggest this record isn’t of significance, or that I didn’t admire its ambition; some records are made to change the musical landscape, and it’s up to us to decide whether we want to go along for the ride or get left behind.

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Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

Release Date: February 26, 2002

★★★★★ Tracks:
Simple X

As far as solo musicians go, there isn’t a current artist more inspiring than Andrew Bird. With his use of a violin, guitar, array of pedals, voice, whistle and computer mechanisms, he is a one-man band. His shows become epic sweeps of technical skill and song experimentation; he is unafraid of the slow build, adding extra layers and loops, warping the components of the original recordings to make each song uniquely different for each performance. For the past few years he has brung Martin Dosh along, multi-talented percussionist and programmer, who adds a heartbeat to Bird’s cerebral, live performances. My introduction to Bird was 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha. It’s an undeniably confident sounding record, full of inventive lyricism and unorthodox songwriting. And Bird’s signature whistling, which I’ve heard some declare a nuisance, is so honed and refined, it helps to further distance himself from his counterparts.

The first half of Armchair Apocrypha is the poppiest group of songs Bird has ever written, and that easy accessibility helped to turn me on to his more challenging work. “Fiery Crash,” a fast-tempo track layered around a soft electric guitar sounds like more an outro than an intro. “Imitosis” is eccentric, reminding me of a more cerebral-sounding Beck, and reading the lyrics and/or watching the video for “Imitosis” further projects the image:

Why do they congregate in groups of four
Scatter like a billion spores and let the wind just carry them away?
How can kids be so mean?
Our famous doctor tried to glean as he went home at the end of the day

Some complain Bird is borderline nonsensical in his quest at sounding highbrow, but he has some absolute lyrical gems on tracks like “Armchairs” (time is a crooked bow), “Plasticities” (think life is too long / to be a whale in a cubicle / nails under your cuticles) and “Darkmatter” (do you wonder where the self resides / is it in the head or between your sides).

As good as the more inviting first half of Armchair Apocrypha is, it’s the middle and later portion of the record where Andrew Bird is at his finest. The seven-minute long “Armchairs” is a refrained masterpiece, ambient strings and violins introduce a slow piano as it builds into an explosive culmination where Bird sings those lines, “time is a crooked bow.” The excellent “Simple X” is the only song co-written by Dosh, it’s skittery percussion driven rhythm an outlier to most of Bird’s other material. On “Cataracs” and “Spare-Ohs,” Haley Bonar’s twangy backing vocals beautifully contrast Bird’s soft voice, marking the best portions of both songs. And then there’s “Scythian Empires,” a song where Bird, who’s a classically trained violinist and whistler but self-taught guitarist, shows how naturally all instruments come to him with an incredible display of finger-picking. The thing is, Armchair Apocrypha isn’t even his best album. The Mysterious Production of Eggs is up next.

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