embryonic

After releasing three albums in a row that were variously considering masterpieces, beginning with 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, and continuing on with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War with the Mystics, Oklahoma based band the Flaming Lips close out the first decade of the 21st century with Embryonic, a sprawling, some may even say meandering, set of music that some will hail as yet another masterpiece, but may alienate and/or test the patience of others. It’s their most experimental, more dissonant sounding record in years: Some songs feature a deliberately distorted guitar and drum sound, snippets of seemingly random monologues taken from math lectures and conversations, and odd sounding vocals, all frequently set to sweeping psychedelic tinged soundscapes that are sometimes welcoming and sometimes somewhat menacing, and sometimes both. It’s also their most cohesive album, probably ever, really, as on repeat listens, it’s not hard to imagine the 18 tracks being individual parts of one strange, beautiful and frequently difficult whole. Embryonic is a challenging record for sure, but one that creates genuine excitement and wonder about it, and offers up a bit of fun to boot. Standout cuts: “Convinced Of The Hex,” “Powerless,” “Silver Trembling Hands” and “Watching The Planets.”

P.S.: Including a cartoonish sounding whooping “warrior Indian” on a list for “I Can Be A Frog” that otherwise includes “creatures,” insects, a vehicle and a destructive force of nature is puzzling at best, somewhat dehumanizing and offensive at worst. The lyrical gaffe mars an otherwise sweet song.

http://www.myspace.com/flaminglips

Volcano Choir – Unmap

September 23, 2009

volcanochoirVolcano Choir features a collaboration of two Wisconsin based bands: Collections Of Colonies of Bees and Bon Iver, or, respectively, Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Jim Schoenecker, Daniel Spack, and Thomas Wincek, and Justin Vernon, who fronts the latter band. Some of the nine tracks included on Unmap, their debut record, were written in 2005, predating Bon Iver’s 2008 breakthrough album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Fans of that band’s eerie, ethereal vocals will find those present on Volcano Choir tracks, but some may be put off by the often heavily experimental feel of the music here. Unmap has its share of beautiful, richly meditative moments, but the band has a looser, more improvisational approach, akin perhaps to bands like Animal Collective, but having more in common musically with instrumental work by Brian Eno or Laurie Anderson. The only track I was put off by was “Still,” which employed the now dreaded Auto-Tune for some of its vocals, though it’s possible I’ll return to it later and appreciate it more. All in all, a very worthy effort, recommended for fans of the experimental, and anyone looking for some challenging, largely instrumental rock and pop. Standout cuts: “Husks and Shells,” “Island, IS,” “Mbira In The Morass” and “Youlagy.”

http://www.myspace.com/volcanochoir

Bjork – Voltaic

July 2, 2009

voltaicI wasn’t that crazy about Bjork’s last studio album, Volta, so I was less than enthuiastic about her current release, Voltaic, a live album recorded in one take at a London studio shortly before her 2007 Glastonbury appearance. It may have been that either I didn’t really get Volta when I listened to it, or else I just really prefer the five live interpretations included among the eleven tracks here, which comprise the live set she had worked out for her Volta tour. At any rate, it’s no exaggeration to say that Voltaic is one of Bjork’s very best albums, and a rich and inspired summation of everything that has earned her a worldwide following since her days with the Sugarcubes and throughout her solo career: Grandly scaled, restlessly experimental electronica mixed with pop, coupled with an overarching intelligence and wit, and that powerful, distinctive voice of hers. Oh, Bjork, I will never doubt you again. Standout cuts: “Wanderlust,” “Hunter,” “Pagan Poetry” and “Declare Independence.”

http://www.bjork.com

Anni Rossi – Rockwell

March 21, 2009

annirossiThe music on Chicago based Minnesota native Anni Rossi’s LP debut, Rockwell, is of the sort that drives music writers to distraction trying to fully describe it. Let me say, in admittedly simplistic fashion, that the Steve Albini-produced album is a mixture of folk and chamber pop, with a lyrical point of view, here mostly concerned with environments of various sorts, akin to Jane Siberry and early Bjork. It successfully skirts the thin line between arty and cutesy, instead achieving a strange beauty, and having toured with both the Ting Tings and Electrelane, Rossi’s music exhibits both a flair for a catchy pop melody as well as a tendency towards the elegantly experimental. Rossi’s versatile voice and her expertise with the viola are also keys to her unique sound. The ten songs included are compacted little gems, only one of which breaks the three minute mark, the current single, “Wheelpusher.” And I should also mention it’s hugely entertaining to listen to. Call it what you will, “alt-folk,” “anti-folk,” it’s good stuff. Standout cuts: “Machine,” “Ecology,” “Wheel Pusher” and “Air Is Nothing.”

http://www.myspace.com/annirossi

In my review of Calgary based multi-instrumentalist and one man band Chad VanGaalen’s last album, Skelliconnection, I described his work as sounding “like a collaboration between Devendra Banhart, Beck and the Moldy Peaches.” To some degree this description holds true for Soft Airplane, his third LP, but I think I’d add in Sonic Youth at their most experimental to the mix. The songs on Soft Airplane are preoccupied for the most part with death and mortality, and the music is more aggressive and frequently more abrasive than the music found on his previous releases. The potent combination of folk with rock, experimental pop and any number of other musical styles makes for an appropriately otherworldly sound that’s both engaging and possessed of an eerie beauty. I was mightily impressed with Skelliconnection, to the point where I declared it one of the best albums of 2006, but VanGaalen has outdone himself in a big way, Soft Airplanes representing a considerable leap forward, the sound of someone coming into their full powers as an artist. Standout cuts: “Willow Tree,” “Cities Of The Dead,” “Poisonous Heads” and “Molten Light.”

http://www.myspace.com/chadvangaalen

Parts & Labor – Receivers

October 22, 2008

The new album from Brooklyn based band Parts & Labor is a consistently surprising effort, combining noise, prog and psychedelic rock, often with 70’s heavy metal guitar backdrop, into an experimental mix that for the first half of the album often doesn’t even seem like the same band from track to track. They also layer on some electronic flourishes and display a real talent for a pop hook, as with the irresistible “Nowheres Nigh.” Things slow down a bit at the midpoint with “The Ceasing Now,” but pick up again with the somewhat regal sounding ballad “Wedding In A Wasteland” and the prog rock workout “Prefix Now,” both of which have an epic sweep about them. This is a pretty cool record, and having not listened to Parts & Labor in the past, this was an unexpected pleasure. Standout cuts: “Satellites,” “Nowheres Nigh,” “Mount Misery” and “Wedding In A Wasteland.”

http://www.myspace.com/partsandlabor

Catskills, New York based band Mercury Rev’s latest album reminded me of a lot of different bands at once: Tangerine Dream, Ryūichi Sakamoto, Yes, a little bit of Sigur Rós, a little bit of early Moby. It’s blissed out, multilayered dream pop done on a mostly epic scale, with one of the highlights, “Dream Of A Young Girl As A Flower,” topping out at nearly eight minutes. Some tracks held up for me better than other tracks on repeated listens, my favorites being the opener, “Snowflake In A Hot World,” “People Are So Unpredictable” and the aforementioned track. I found the first single, “Senses On Fire,” didn’t actually do a whole lot for me. All in all, Snowflake Midnight is both an ambitious work and a mixed bag, but when it’s good, it’s very good.

http://www.myspace.com/mercuryrevmusic

“WARNING: DO NOT LISTEN WHILE OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE

THIS PRODUCT IS NOT FAULTY – ALL SOUNDS ARE INTENTIONAL AND VALID AS A WORK OF ART”

Minneapolis based singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s latest album, 49:00, is one continuous 43:55 track, with at least 12 full songs, with a few covers of the Beatles, Alice Cooper, Steppenwolf and the Monkees woven in. Maybe “woven in” is the correct term, as 49:00 represents a sort of crazy quilt approach to music, with the songs mixed so they run into each other, and in the case of “Goodnight Sweet Prince,” over and under each other, then side by side. Random noises and often seconds long fragments of other songs serve as segues of sorts in between the full length songs, and the result sounds a bit like the radio shows that Negativland used to do, albeit programmed by a wandering, restless, and thoroughly engaging musical mind. Some of the songs are lo-fi sounding, but most of the album sounds crisp and sharp, so as eccentric as 49:00‘s presentation may be, it’s hardly a throwaway. Indeed, it’s one of Westerberg’s best solo albums ever, and certainly one of the most fun to listen to.

Man Without Ties – The Paul Westerberg Site

Au – Verbs

July 20, 2008

Though Portland based band Au’s second album Verbs has been touted as psychedelic, that description doesn’t much prepare listeners for the music that’s actually in store for them. It’s experimental music that will appeal to fans of Animal Collective and Panda Bear and bands like them, but the tracks here are largely influenced by classical music and fusion jazz, and it’s frankly refreshing to hear a band working in this genre that isn’t all about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Verbs is a work that allows itself to wander from joyous sounding songs with big choruses and harmonies, to songs punctuated by ambient touches and then marching band style music. Sometimes the album feels a bit aimless, but it always finds itself again, introducing elements that are interesting, engaging and sometimes surprising. Though it wasn’t designed to repeat seamlessly, I found that when the album started again, I thought another song had just begun. Verbs is an album you can wander through a few times, discovering new things. Standout cuts: “Are Animals,” “rr vs. d,” “Two Seasons” and “The Waltz.”

http://www.myspace.com/peaofthesea

No Age – Nouns

May 11, 2008

Second album from Los Angeles based band No Age is a potent mixture of punk, noise rock and pop, and a bit of shoegaze and dream pop, sometimes all mixed into a single song. It took me a few listens to really get a bead on the album as it seemed to run together the first couple of listens, but as it’s only half an hour long, repeat listens were no problem. Once I got a handle on it, I really started to enjoy it and appreciate the switches in style throughout the 12 tracks. There are only two members of No Age, but the impressive wall of sound and noise they throw up sometimes belies that. Nouns is like Guided By Voices, the Pixies and My Bloody Valentine crossed with Sonic Youth at their most dissonant and experimental, and if that sounds good, No Age is the band for you. Standout cuts: “Teen Creeps,” “Cappo,” “Sleeper Hold” and “Brain Burner.”

http://www.myspace.com/nonoage