Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Zeitgeist #1

First off, I'd like to thank Matthew for allowing me to bring my numbered feature mentality from the scattershot Staying West to here -- a much more structured room with nice padded walls to bounce off of.

Since I rarely go out and wanderlust through new music the way Matthew does, I have to rely on more prosaic methods of figuring out what the kids are listening to. Hence, The Zeitgeist. I'll find some list or other recurring piece of data on popular music, purchase the top-mentioned song in that dataset from iTunes and review it here. Sounds like a hoot, n'est pas?

The first dataset (and the inspiration for The Zeitgeist) is this interesting new Google project - Google Music Trends.

The chart shows the popularity of songs being listened to by users of Google's instant messenging software, Google Talk. If Google Talk is open, and the user has opted into the Music Trends expiriment, the program funnels every song listened to to Google which creates the list. I have no idea what the sample size is, but it seems to be worldwide. This seems like a slightly more accurate portrait of music popularity than Shadoe Steven's American Top 40, but maybe that's just because I believe technology solves all problems.

Anyways, nerdery aside, at 9:30 this morning, the most popular song was Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars. I purchased it, put it on my iPod and listened to it throughout the day. (You can watch the video.) Here is my assessment:

It's not a particularly great song.

It's basically four and a half minutes of plinky buildup, which generally I like. But to pull it off, the payoff has be sublime (Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)" comes to mind as a track which does this.) We're treated to swell of guitars at the end, but so what? Lyrical novelty would make up for this, but "If I lay here, / If I just lay here, / Would you lie with me/ And just forget the world?" doesn't quite cut it. Granted, I'm sure at 14, I would have found it fucking profound.

But, I don't actively dislike the song -- it seems like a decent filler song on a good album, a good second-to-last track. I'm just perplexed with it's the big single. (Especially since I rather liked Snow Patrol's last single, Run). It's like they're trying to pull off what Coldplay did with Clocks, but without the driving tempo that made Clocks great. Overall, exactly the song I would imagine hormonal, white, teenaged IM addicts to be listening to. Released: May 9, 2006 NON-OFFENSIVE

Philip Glass/Kronos Quartet - Dracula

It's Halloween, which can only mean one thing - dusting off my all-time favorite Halloween album: Kronos Quartet performing Philip Glass' score for the original Dracula. I now have the movie, too - thanks, Jen's parents - but for years the music alone has been my fall soundtrack. Haven't spent much time out of the city lately, so there hasn't been any walking through the falling red and yellow leaves with strings dancing in my head. But when I put this on, the leaves appear right in front of me. Sometimes I'm a kid again, trick or treating around my old neighborhood. Sometimes I'm back in the Czech Republic, taking train rides around the country to castles and hiking around for hours with my old discman.

If you don't have this album - and especially if you haven't seen the movie, which is a work of bloody genius even with the old soundtrack (the DVD gives you a choice) - you're missing out. Sure, it gets a bit repetitive in the middle sections, but, to me, it's to Halloween what Nat King Cole's The Christmas Song is to, well, you know. Released: August 31, 1999. ESSENTIAL.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Shearwater - Palo Santo

Something had to break my bad mood.

Shearwater. Wow.

Icy warm, a bit like The Moody Blues but with the softer side of Radiohead thrown in. Jonathan Meiburg's lyrics are gorgeous, albeit hard to hear (the one strike so far against this one is the production - the volume jumps a bit between the soft parts and the loud ones). Johnny Viola is one of the most beautiful songs I've heard all year - in, as I've said, a strong year for songs. And it's only one of the many standouts on this album, even after only a couple of listens. I haven't lived with this long, but I have a feeling it will stick. Released: May 2, 2006. A REAL FIND.

Thanks to The Rich Girls Are Weeping for the tip.

Shearwater - Johnny Viola [mp3] (thank you Baby, You Got a Stew Goin'! for the link.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Putting 2006 On Notice

In keeping with the grump theme that's developed this week...

This time of year always means I'm starting to think about my end of year "Best Of" list, and, of course, my album of the year. Nowadays, when I put an album on, I listen to it with an ear for how complete it is. But what I'm finding is that most of my favorite releases from 2006 contain great songs, but lack something as a whole.

I can make quite a list of The Best Songs of 2006 - which I will do before the year is out - but it's much harder when I have to think of the Best Albums. They all seemed flawed to me. Dylan's is good, but it pales in comparison to his best work; The Decemberists new one is solid, but not Picaresque; Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's The Letting Go has some amazing songs and others that don't connect; The Mountain Goats record is a bit samey and sometimes a bit pathetic; Belle and Sebastian and The Long Winters are both good but not as strong as their previous efforts; Loose Fur isn't Wilco; Current 93 is just too freakish; Asobi Seksu is a bit too shoegazey; Art Brut is only good in small doses; Band of Horses is derivative; Figurines is fun but a tad immature...I could go on and on with my list but it's already well past my bedtime.

Over the next couple months, I will whittle them down and pick one. But last year there were at least five legitimate candidates for my top spot - albums I was really excited about, from start to finish.

All five would win this year.

I Just Threw Up In My Mouth

[Via Stereogum]

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Free Music: Beat Radio - The Great Big Sea

A band I had never heard of called Beat Radio has released their entire debut LP, The Great Big Sea, as a free download on their Web site, which means you are legally required to at least give it a spin. I grabbed it, moments ago, and, on the advice of a music blog called Thank God I'm A Nutsack, I have already listened to a song called Treetops, which is a pretty decent song that I'll probably keep after I've deleted the rest of it. And did I mention it was free?

Beat Radio - The Great Big Sea [zip]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Records We Buy

So I want to experiment with having contributors, mainly because this ensures that at least one other person will read this blog. (And also because I have this silly dream of a running conversation about music).

Welcome Geoff G.

This Is What You Get For Staying Up Until 4 a.m.

Thanks to iTunes and the Lord of the Byron, I got three new albums on Sunday night/Monday morning.

I will likely not give them the time they deserve because I have bought way too many albums this year and haven't given them enough time yet either. Oh well. My college/Prague days are clearly over.

On to the albums...

The first impulse buy was Yellow House by Grizzly Bear. (And yes, I actually do buy the vast majority of my albums with actual money). They're a Brooklyn band, I liked their album cover, the Pitchfork review was glowing and the clips sounded good. And it was the early morning and I was continuing to bemoan the fact that this year hasn't been nearly as good for music as last year was.

So I like it. It reminds me a bit of Kingsbury Manx. But I can't shake the pretentiousness I hear in this album. It's pretty, it's seemingly what I would want in an album, yet I picture the band with smug looks on their faces as they play their various instruments. I haven't much basis for this, I guess, it's just that their music is a tad too precious, and their Web site really fucking annoys me, what with the posed band photos and these descriptions of the band and their album:

Home-recorded songs can feel incomplete whilst being as tantalizingly indicative as the sketches before a painting. The outlines, though interesting in their own respect, are not as satisfying as the finished version. Grizzly Bear, however, have approached song writing as a craft to master from their very first album, Horn of Plenty onwards. Enamored by how a song "reads", they were fully present from prologue to denouement even though singer/songwriter Edward Droste recorded them by himself in his Brooklyn bedroom. Fuelled by a bout of post-relationship inspiration, those first songs celebrated the creative liberation of the ProTools era. They explored the depths of break-ups through crystal-clear tones, field sounds and woozy, complex harmonies.
From prologue to denouement, I find their Web site to be incomplete whilst being as tantalizingly indicative of really bad PR copy or what a bunch of fucktards actually think about themselves. And:
The new material that comprises Yellow House (released on Warp Records on September 4th) puts the band at the vanguard of contemporary song writing. The album was self-recorded during an idyllic summer. The makeshift studio was provided by Droste's mom's living room in a yellow house just off Cape Cod.
In other words, after brunch with Buffy and Skyler down at the Club, the band reconvened to continue celebrating the creative liberation of the ProTools era. Released: September 5, 2006. WHITEBREAD. (So, if my commenter is correct, that the label hired someone to write that and the band had nothing to do with it, I'll tone down the negativity of the RIB "word" by striking it out - but the band really needs to do something about it, IMO. This is how many would-be fans like me get their first introduction to you.)

M. Ward has been recommended to me enough times now and his new one, Post-War, is getting critical acclaim, so it became my second pickup of the early morning. On first listen, I liked it more than the Grizzly Bear album, although this is again an album that seems to favor style over substance.

He's an indie singer-songwriter and it's an album of indie singer-songwriter songs, his first with a backing band. Chinese Translation, the single, is either charming because of the beat and the sing-a-longability or annoying because the storyline seems like it's promising to impart some wisdom but doesn't, at all. (Yes, yes, his point is that there are no actual answers, and that we're all on the same quest for something that can't be found, blah blah blah, but I'm sorry, I don't buy it). I do like some of this album, but I could see myself listening to it for about another week. I am evidently missing something, because everyone else is shitting themselves over this one. Released: August 29, 2006. M. BORED.

Everytime Beck releases an album, I wonder if I should get it, eventually do, find it nice enough I guess, and then it collects dust (real, digital or otherwise). This is probably going to be the same exact thing, and, if so, I may have finally had enough. Released: October 3, 2006. BLECCH.

Boy, am I negative this evening. Did I mention how awesome Bread, Love and Cha Cha Cha is?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bishop Allen - Like Castanets

Bishop Allen is a Brooklyn-based band that has released an EP every month of this year as they work on their next album. You can download some samples from their Web site. I just grabbed a bunch, including a real good one called Like Castanets, from the September EP, described by the band as such:

Justin was invited down to Chile just a bit ago because his movie was screening in festivals there. He walked around Santiago, through the streets and the antipodal Winter. If I remember right, he flew back and then we hopped in the van to go on tour. When we returned to New York, we recorded this song first thing for the new EP, and it remains our favorite.
I'm really digging this song.

Bishop Allen - Like Castanets [mp3]

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Kids Are Just Alright

Let's start with Return to the Sea by Islands. This album has been atop enough "Best of '06 So Far" lists that I finally felt compelled to check it out. Like the Danielson album, though, you shouldn't be fooled by the hype. This is another of the Fiery Furnaces/ADD-inspired albums that you'll either love for its choas or hate for its lack of cohesion. I must admit I was charmed by it, but if I had to pick I would probably go with the latter. There should really be a warning label for this genre of albums.

Swans (Life After Death), the first track, is an epic of the "Will....this...song...ever...end?" variety and I had decided to despise this album by the time it was over. But the next couple of songs are decent enough and Rough Gem forced a smile onto my face. I could see my little sister liking this - and I might pass it on to her. It is "charming", but not as much as other "charming" albums I have (Architecture in Helsinki comes to mind) and will likely collect digital dust on the inside of my harddrive. Released: April 4, 2006 (look at that - my sister's birthday!). STRANDED.

Meanwhile, if a band sounds exactly like another, previously existing band, are they a waste of time? Should they be scorned? That is my quandry with Band of Horses, who remind me a great deal of My Morning Jacket. Despite having a more gorgeous album cover than MMJ's latest, lead singer Ben Bridwell sounds a whole lot like Jim James (although he also sings like he could have been a Beach Boy in a previous life) and the band rocks in a very similar way. Sometimes, I think maybe the answer to my question is no, that this is a worthy album despite sounding derivative. But sometimes, I put it on and think to myself, "I'd rather be listening to Z." I'm really going to have to get back to you on this one. I will tell you one thing, though, the song posted via YouTube below (The Funeral) kicks major ass. Released: March 21, 2006. UNDECIDED.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

With Picaresque - and the great show they put on at Webster Hall - I quickly fell in love with The Decemberists last year, especially their quirky charm and Colin Meloy's Mellvillian lyrics, from The Mariner's Revenge Song, an eight-minute-plus seafaring tale of long-unrequited vengence taken inside the belly of a whale, to The Engine Driver, an R.E.M.-esque song of a railroad worker who writes novels to rid himself of painful memories of an ex-lover. And Angels and Angles, a soft love song that closes out the album, and The Sporting Life, a perfect song for dosado-ing. In other words, a great mix of moving, fantastic storytelling and lighthearted fun.

I knew that it was The Decemberists' masterpiece.

So The Crane Wife, their first major-label release, was bound to disappoint. It just was a matter of how much.

Happily, it's not too much. The Crane Wife is not Picaresque - the playful songs aren't as playful and the epic tales aren't as compelling. And the music is far more bizarre - The Island begins like vintage Band On The Run-era Paul McCartney before turning into a Leprechauns-on-acid Irish jig. But it's an awesome song, and there is plenty more to like here. The Shankill Butchers is already an essential on my personal Halloween soundtrack, and Yankee Bayonet and The Crane Wife 3 also help make up a strong collection of folk songs, although Sons & Daughters, after starting strong, becomes repetitive and a bit annoying. The highlight of the album (besides the Meloy/Laura Veirs duet on Yankee) is O Valencia!, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of warring families and forbidden love, which has the album's best hook. Released: October 3, 2006. MELOYDIOUS.

A classic:

'The Battle of the Bands'

Or, as Idolator says, "album covers messing with each other".

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bread, Love and Cha-Cha-Cha

File Under: Records I Play

Just in case you think I am only using the word "record" to sound hip - which is, don't get me wrong, exactly what I'm trying to do - I finally got my lovely birthday turntable set up in my new Hoboken digs. I have a thirty-year-old stereo with horrid speakers that crap out every couple of songs, but listening to Computer World on vinyl, while playing it simultaneously in iTunes, makes me the happiest geek on Madison Street.

Spin the black circle!

"Inside you, the time moves, but she don't fade..."

So now I'll have to write reviews of all the records I've picked up at flea markets but never actually listened to because my parents' record player was broken. The first one I should write about is "Bread, Love and Cha-Cha-Cha" which I was just dancing around the room to. It's better even than I had imagined it from the album art (yes, that's a giant loaf of bread smoking a cigarette and wearing a beret). And once we get a couch, you can come over and listen to it, too.