27 October 2008

AMG review round-up, volume VIII

this time around - covering my review output from september, mostly, along with a few stragglers - we've got a bit from column "A" and a bit from column "B". first up, five assorted and generally quite enjoyable records of electronic dance hoo-hah (from abstractest to poppiest and roughly in order of goodness.) then, an eclectic quartet of singer-songwriter types, only three of them scandinavian. and for dessert, one of the most perplexing albums i've encountered in a while, the self-titled debut of Dominique Leone, which is perhaps somewhere in between the previous categories; perhaps somewhere else entirely. i think i finally figured out what is going on with it, but that took rather a while, making it one of my proudest recent record-reviewing accomplishments. before we get to that, though, another one that, as previously discussed, took me a minute to pin down...

Pink Skull: bio and Zeppelin 3 review

Pink Skull main man Julian Grefe has spoken in interviews about wanting to make a record in the vein of the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, citing its dynamic diversity and cohesive album-length arc as elements lacking in most contemporary dance music. It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when listening to the Philadelphia band/DJ collective's sprawling, perplexing debut album -- for one thing, it's gotten distressingly difficult to think of the Chems as radical and experimental these days -- but that 1997 landmark is an entirely apt reference point. Zeppelin 3 certainly doesn't sound much like the vast majority of electronic music produced this decade, with a rough-edged, acid-washed sensibility that evinces little of electro-house's garish, '80s-refracting gleam or minimal's streamlined polish. And it doesn't sound anything like Led Zeppelin's III (Grefe's all-time favorite album) either, although like the Chems before them, Pink Skull don't shy away from manifesting their love of rock music and stadium-sized excess -- Grefe's a veteran of several Philly punk bands, and there are plenty of guitars here although they're employed not so much for righteous riffage as for steady, Kraut-like slow burns ("Zing Zong," "El Topo") and ambient smears ("Ssilt.") There's also a bit of deviant hip-hop -- an enjoyable, "Apache"-cribbing remix of Plastic Little's "Crambodia," featuring Amanda Blank, Spank Rock, and, improbably, Ghostface Killah -- and a smidgen of indie folk, in the oddly truncated Mirah guest-spot "Take Me Out Riding," which mostly feels like a missed opportunity (particularly in perhaps unfair comparison with the Chemical Brothers' brilliant work with Beth Orton.) Otherwise, most of the album consists of highly abstract, restively mutating, groove-based tracks that land somewhere in between breakbeat and acid house, overlaid with squelching psychedelic synths, percussion breakdowns, snatches of saxophone, and tortured, unrecognizable vocal fragments, and embellished with a dizzying array of effects. In other words, it's not far off from the bulk of Dig Your Own Hole, although this album lacks the equivalent of a "Block Rockin' Beats" or a "Setting Sun." There are few apparent bankable hooks, although the abrasive, insistent fuzz bass lick of the break-happy "Gonzo's Cointreau" (the album's most straightforward stab at big beat revivalism -- there's even a siren!), comes close. Partly for that reason, but also because it's not quite as eclectic or as cohesive as Grefe and co. perhaps hoped, Zeppelin 3 can be somewhat daunting and draining to listen through in its entirety. But taken in smaller doses (the ten-minute kitchen-sink workout "Bubblelog Aftermath," for instance), it can be quite effective, and it's definitely a worthwhile and promising step in the ongoing exploration and integration of dance music's interconnected past and future.

Midfield General: General Disarray review

Where has Damian Harris been for the last eight years, you're unlikely to ask? It turns out the Big Beat architect/Norman Cook chum/Skint label boss is alive and well and spent at least a chunk of the time since his late-to-the-party debut LP living in Paris, partying it up with the likes of the Ed Banger and Kitsuné rosters -- labels whose output arguably represents the closest trendy dance music has come to the bombastic, rock/hip-hop/electro-fusing spirit of big beat since the genre fell into disfavor around the turn of the millennium. In fact, to judge by General Disarray's extensive liner thank yous, he's been making friends with virtually everyone who's anyone in the 21st century dance world, but those French connections in particular led to a role executive producing Justice's massive 2007 single "D.A.N.C.E.," and in turn to that group's Xavier de Rosnay's contributions to the Midfield General comeback single, "Disco Sirens." For a song celebrating (and prominently featuring) big beat's most obnoxious secondary trait, it's surprisingly delightful, thanks in part to de Rosnay's funky-struttin' bass work, which nods just slightly to Daft Punk's "Around the World," as well as cheeky rap-styled vocals by Vila of Modular's Bumblebeez 81. That track (it was also mixed by Soulwax, giving it quite an impressive blog-house pedigree) makes an auspicious calling card for this highly unanticipated return, and the guest-heavy General Disarray doesn't disappoint, although it can't help but live up to its title...

diskJokke: Staying In review

Joakim Dyrdhal's fanciful electro-disco productions bear some commonalities with...Hans-Peter Lindstrøm, arguably the Scandinavian electronica scene's de facto figurehead, with whom he shares a label (the increasingly buzzed-about Smalltown Supersound), a strong focus on melody and musicality, and a knack for compositions that feel simultaneously playful and majestic. Though they definitely evince a certain airiness, laced with starry-eyed synths and the occasional woozy swell, his tracks stop short of Lindstrøm's furthest-out, spacy excesses, rarely stretching beyond the six-minute range and maintaining a more or less consistent foundation of sturdy, midtempo disco beats (although he's not afraid to break it down and built it back up mid-song.) Those grooves help ensure a base level of dancefloor functionality without hampering the sense of restless creativity which is perhaps Staying In's most notable quality, though it also turns out to be something of an Achilles' heel. Somewhat paradoxically, the internal variety and subtle complexity of many of these pieces, which seem to unfurl a dizzying array of melodic and textural ideas over their gradually fluctuating beats, can leave them feeling somewhat formless and even faceless.

Nôze: bio, How To Dance and Songs On The Rocks reviews

For all the contributions the French have made to electronic dance music in the past ten years, from Daft Punk's era-defining filter-house to the more recent bangers of Justice et al., it's striking how little of it has been overtly, recognizably French in attitude or musical aesthetic. Parisian duo Nôze go a fair distance toward amending that discrepancy, displaying a (stereo)typically Gallic ability to maintain an air of sophistication and vague superciliousness while indulging an utterly bizarre and often vulgar sense of humor, à la the paradigmatically Frenchy Serge Gainsbourg. Songs on the Rocks, their third full-length and highest-profile release to date, appears on the German imprint Get Physical, which is hardly inappropriate, given a rhythmic drive that's closer to that label's teutonic tech-house than French Touch neu-disco... Nevertheless, it's easily their Frenchiest outing to date, featuring prominent vocals, either in French or heavily-accented English, on every track save one, and making explicit their connection to the long-running chanson tradition, the classic pop likes of Gainsbourg, and more recent inheritors like Arthur H. Essentially, they've made good on the promise of "songs" -- as suggested by the album title and foreshadowed by the popular singles "Kitchen" and "Remember Love" -- while mostly jettisoning the rangier experiments of their earlier releases, thereby making this also their most accessible album yet. It's still a far cry from conventional though, especially when Nicolas Sfintescu unleashes the full power of his distinctively, er, froggy voice, an absurd and sometimes frightening growl that can range from comical to unbearable, depending on your tolerance for unhinged Tom Waits-isms and vichyssoise-thick shtick. On the album's pair of demented quasi-epics -- "Childhood Blues" and the "cinematic" "Slum Girl" -- that voice is just obnoxiously overbearing, dripping with (respectively) caricatured anguish and spy movie sleaze, and likely a deal-breaker for many listeners, but it's a good deal easier to take in clipped, chipper bursts, and in conjunction with other voices, on twitchy, light-on-their-feet groovers like "L'Inconnu du Placard" and the aptly named "You Have to Dance." And then there's "Remember Love," the undeniable standout here, built around a simple but maddeningly effective Chicago house piano figure and an effortlessly funky skip-step groove, with lyrics that touch on barroom infidelity, talking zebras, and the universality of love. That track's simplicity and classicism might have led fans to expect even more of a departure from Nôze on this album, but while it does trend in a more broadly palatable direction, Songs on the Rocks is more of a progression than a wholesale change from their typical oddball antics. Still, listeners drawn in by "Remember Love" (which would be worth the price of admission on its own) may well find the rest of the album nearly as enjoyable, in its own quirky way. Particularly if they have a taste for Époisses de Bourgogne.

Rex The Dog: bio and The Rex The Dog Show review

The Rex the Dog Show is an unusual combination of debut album and career retrospective, collecting five tracks from Rex the Dog's much-loved 12" releases and two remixes for other artists, along with six new productions. The approach is all killer, no filler -- the 12" sides have been smartly edited down, in some cases to nearly half of their length, to yield a concise, pop-friendly 45 minutes. As for the new tracks, not all that much has changed in Rex's basic production template -- he's still almost monomaniacally fixated on vintage '70s synthesizers and thumping electro-house percussion -- except that all but one of the six feature vocals of some sort (as opposed to only one of the five older tracks), in keeping with the poppier direction signposted by the short track lengths. Actually, as good as the vocals are, they tend to lessen the immediacy of these tracks, deflecting attention away from the rapturous, constantly mutating, elemental synth hooks which are Rex's greatest strength. One could argue that nothing measures up to the delirious heights of the previously released inclusions, but it doesn't really need to: none of the older pieces have lost an ounce of their charm, and the newer material helps to enhance their effectiveness by fleshing out a varied, listenable full-length experience very much in the vein of Mylo's similarly excellent Destroy Rock & Roll. Simply put, it's hard to deny the sheer quantity and quality of visceral enjoyment this album offers -- at his frequent best, which is handily compiled here, Rex the Dog makes (in the words of fellow electro-genius Richard X) "pure 21st century synth-pop": bombastic, euphoric, and beautiful.

Montt Mardié:
Clocks/Pretender review

David Pagmar's second album as Montt Mardié is, for all intents and purposes, actually two albums, packaged (quite beautifully) as the two-disc set Clocks/Pretender. Although the 20 songs contained here clock in at just over an hour, and could easily fit onto a single disc, each half has its own distinct character and conceit, and each is entirely satisfying on its own terms. The loosely conceptual Clocks could be considered the "proper" follow-up to Mardié's debut, Drama, although it takes most of its cues from the classic songbook pop of the pre-rock era, rather than the 1980s, and eschews synthesizers in favor of stylish brass and string arrangements, fabulously rendered by a 20-piece big band-cum-orchestra. These musicians provide the buoyant, swinging backup for an authentically brassy rendition of the 1941 Frank Sinatra standard "Let's Get Away from It All," and help make nearly every other (original) song feel just as classic and ageless. Each song deals, in different ways, with the central themes of romance, nostalgia, memory, and world travel, and helps to evoke a vague but potent sense of historical time and place -- the album opens with a thunderclap and a snippet of 1920s bandleader Jean Goldkette, and has an over-arching pre-war vibe, but references to the '60s also abound in the lyrics as well as the music, from the Apollo moon landing and Holly Golightly to the title of the achingly lovely "How I Won the War" and the bouncy pop-soul flavor of "Birthday Boy."

Pretender, meanwhile, feels somewhat scattershot compared to the cohesion of Clocks, but it's nearly as enjoyable on a track for track basis. Each of the ten songs is a duet and a collaboration, all written by Pagmar but roughly tailored to the style of each collaborator and in most cases featuring their instrumental work or production. To some extent this offers a chance for him to demonstrate even greater range, but since his partners are all mostly standard Swedish indie pop types the results can generally be categorized as wistful, acoustic ballads, earnestly melodic synth rock, or effervescent dance-pop. Not that that's anything to complain about. Taken together, [these discs] offer a bounty of tuneful and inventive pop music as rich as any that's emerged from Sweden, or anywhere, in recent memory.

Morten Abel: bio, Here We Go Then, You And I and Being Everything, Knowing Nothing review

Although the core of his fourth solo outing is tasteful, tuneful, upbeat singer/songwriter pop/rock, Morten Abel proves too idiosyncratic to adhere strictly to such a familiar template -- he strays frequently and sometimes quite liberally, to intriguing and generally successful results. Along with plenty of full-bodied guitar work and some particularly lovely female harmony vocals, there are touches of instrumental color that help to liven things up -- banjo; whistling and slide guitar; some horns and subtle synthesizers. There are stylistic flirtations with Primal Scream-esque psychedelia and erratic, reggae-tinged funk-rock. And then there are the real curve-balls, abrupt diversions into hip-hop, a bizarre electro/diva-soul pastiche and, strangest of all, the sing-song story rap of "The Birmingham Ho," a sort of updated "Lola" featuring a saga about a transvestite, some music hall piano on the bridge, and the cryptic refrain "You don't have to be gay to make a friend feel good, OK." For all its playful genre experimentation -- which may explain the "being everything" part of the title -- and general goofiness, however, there's a stronger undercurrent of sentimentality and earnestness that comes through to make the album much more than a novelty; ultimately the introspection and emotional sincerity most evident on the relatively "normal" songs stand out as perhaps album's most essential and appealing qualities.

Britta Persson: Kill Hollywood Me review

Britta Persson may have inherited the Swedish national knack for melodic hooks, but her intimate, decidedly idiosyncratic singer/songwriter approach has little in common with the demure twee and melancholic pop fare most often associated with her native land. Kill Hollywood Me offers a blend of arty pop, indie folk, and smart, gritty rock that recalls the '90s alternative likes of Liz Phair, Tracy Bonham, and Tanya Donelly, with a mix of whimsy and sentiment akin to Regina Spektor and Nellie McKay. Lead track and first single "Cliffhanger" starts things off on a particularly tough, rocky note -- it sounds surprisingly angry for a song about a promising relationship, although that's somewhat tempered by the melodic sweetness of the chorus, which fantasizes about parenthood and domestic bliss, years down the line. Persson has explained the phrase "kill Hollywood me" in reference to her wish to take herself less seriously, to focus on simplicity and happiness instead of a cinematic glamorization of love and relationships -- "memories and fantasies are to be seen as enemies," she sings on the title tune -- and that struggle is evident throughout the album's frequently lovelorn, self-doubting lyrics, which find her alternately renouncing and half-heartedly succumbing to the vicissitudes of modern romance. "If you're scared of goodbyes, don't say hello all the time" she reminds herself in "U-Turns," vowing to stay home at night and pursue "healthy love with healthy people." But "Can I Touch?" finds her out playing the field again, somewhat fatalistically wooing a prospective one-night stand with the come on "Who needs a head when you've got a heart?," which becomes an oddly triumphant group singalong. Ultimately, as much as she may strive not to let her romantic tendencies get the better of her -- "to invest and not get obsessed," as she puts it on the gentle, country-ish "In or Out," which features the unconvincing assertion that "this is about as fun as it gets/between happiness and unhappiness" -- she makes the alternative sound a good deal more gratifying, especially on the upbeat "Happy Hour," whose easygoing folk-pop lope and Sophie B. Hawkins-referencing refrain (or not; after all, there's a certain universality to the phrase "damn I wish I was your lover") make for one of the album's most engaging moments. Admittedly, untangling the album's textual intricacies without a lyric sheet can require some close listening, what with Persson's distinct accent and sometimes bizarre phrasing, but that's hardly a prerequisite for enjoying its richly textured, unconventional arrangements, and it shouldn't stop Kill Hollywood Me from appealing to listeners who don't mind a refreshing dollop of originality in their songwriter pop.

Jeff Hanson: Madam Owl review

As always -- for better or worse -- the most immediately striking feature of Madam Owl, at least for Hanson newcomers, is his unearthly singing voice: ethereal, gossamer, and yes, undeniably feminine. It's not simply that Hanson's falsetto is high, it's also impossibly delicate; tender but confidently solid; poignant without a hint of strain, with a resigned sweetness that recalls a certain (male) late, great labelmate. Madam Owl does little to discourage the reductive but apt (and inevitable) "female Elliott Smith" tag, although it has as much in common with the ambitious, classicist pop of Figure 8 and XO as the sparse, deft acoustic picking of Smith's earlier work. On the other hand, Hanson's music has always been polite in a way that Smith's is not -- less emotionally urgent, less rough around the edges -- and here it sounds positively urbane, with elegant chamber arrangements that give the album an understated Baroque quality, while still leaving plenty of space for his voice and folky guitar work to take center stage. The orchestration also helps to distinguish his otherwise often faceless songs, whose consistent prettiness and emotive but forgettable lyrics can render them somewhat interchangeable. If "Maryann" happens to echo the phrasing of "No Name #1" from Elliott Smith's debut, while the lyrics of "This Friend of Mine" ("I lost this friend of mine so very young/his wishes we would carry out/but know one seemed to know about them") are nonspecific enough that they could conceivably have been written about Smith, it's nothing worth complaining about -- not when he can make evoking his influences sound this effortless and heavenly.

Dominique Leone: Dominique Leone review

Considering the litany of literate talking-point touchstones that filter their way through the twisted pop phantasmagoria of Dominique Leone's self-titled debut, the inaugural release on Hans-Peter Lindstrøm's Strømland imprint -- for starters, the big-league melodicism (and restlessly conceptual thrust) of Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, and XTC; the whimsical arcanity of the Canterbury scene; the brutalist cacophonics of Boredoms; and over a decade's worth of post-IDM exploration and electro-dance rejiggering, from Cornelius to Matmos to Ellen Allien, not to mention the conspicuously cerebral residue of a pedigreed classical background -- it's perhaps a no-brainer that it ends up sounding like very little except for itself. What's more surprising is that it's also remarkably cohesive -- despite a seemingly limitless outpouring of ideas and a penchant for sudden stylistic left turns (including jarring noise barrages) comparable to the convoluted neo-prog of the Fiery Furnaces (and, at times, Of Montreal) and an occasionally manic, giddy energy that recalls the day-glo pastiche work of Dan Deacon and the Go! Team, the album generally avoids merely refracting its cripplingly broad influence roster into a formless, indulgently esoteric hodgepodge. It's held together in part by a consistently dense, garishly glossy sonic aesthetic that layers buzzy, metallic keyboards and guitars around Leone's grittily processed voice, which is often multi-tracked into high, queasy, saccharine harmonies in a malformed take on his beloved Beach Boys, with frequent electronic disruptions of varying obnoxiousness. That may not sound very appealing, and, admittedly, it's not a style that makes for particularly easy listening, but it's an effective, intriguing, and distinctive one nevertheless. By juxtaposing such a willfully "difficult" approach with the surprisingly traditionalist popcraft that lies at the heart of most of these songs (and they are songs, albeit often encumbered as much by bizarre structures and knotty harmonies as they are by textural zaniness), Leone isn't just screwing around with thwarted accessibility for its own perverse, limited ends, but seems rather to be genuinely striving for new ways to integrate pop melodics, unorthodox compositional structure, and avant-garde sonics into a workable whole.

The album presents a range of approaches to this project, with varying degrees of success: "Duyen," the cheerily chugging "Goodbye," and the unexpectedly gorgeous closing piano ballad, "Conversational," are relatively straightforward pop songs, and quite lovely ones too, with little or no structural disruption, though they're in keeping with the rest of the album production-wise. On the other end of the spectrum, "Kaine" and "Claire" are so structurally disjointed as to verge on sonic collage, their through-line melodies all but obscured by shards of noise and shifting rhythms. Epic-length centerpiece "The Return" attempts to bridge these two approaches with only middling success -- it has a decent enough recurrent refrain that passes through untold iterations before descending into an extended miasma of mindless frippery, but as a whole feels plodding and pedantic. Quite the opposite is true, however, of "Nous Tombons Dans Elle," the album's weirdest, poppiest, and by far best track, an utterly baffling, utterly infectious multi-part bundle of boundless cutesy energy that packs in pretty much every sound we've heard along the way, helped along by a couple of killer dance beats. Oh yes, dance beats. Given that electronic dance music is routinely allowed far greater liberty in sound and structure than any comparably popular style -- somehow dance beats seem to make a lot of things more palatable -- this may be the most viable solution to the particular quandary Leone seems to be investigating here. Perhaps he'd consider it a cop-out on the experimentation front, but it would be great to hear him take some cues from his label boss and just do a lot more like this. In any case, this is a striking, accomplished debut that hints at whole new realms of possibility, and an album that should prove absolutely fascinating to anybody able to tolerate it.

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