Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Adventurers United

I’ve been attempting to catch up on some records this week, so here are some of the results…

I have to confess to an element of ‘genre tokenism’ when it comes to specialist dance music. I don’t pick up that many dance records in the course of a year, and I’m certainly no expert in the field. I’m certainly appreciating the new album from The Field though (oh dear, do you see what I did there?). I’m not sure that Axel Willner’s breed of minimalist techno is bracingly original, but it’s certainly mesmerising and effective, as this music should be. All the individual elements of this music are steadfastly basic, from the skeletal drum programming (which initially seems unadventurous) to the repetition ad nauseum of various vocal samples and ambient effects. Yet this is anything but background music. The effect is such that very subtle shifts in texture become unexpectedly dramatic. With the four to the floor beat pushed into the background, the emphasis is more on sound and atmosphere than rhythm. The rippling synth figures of ‘The Little Heart Beats So Fast’ hark back to the acid house movement, whilst the more prominent ideas in tracks like ‘Over the Ice’ and ‘Everyday’ create an eerie calm unusual for dance music. This is music that sounds simultaneously detached and immediate – elusive, mysterious but captivating. The title seems eerily appropriate – this seems to capture what the process of sublimation might sound like.

‘Mirrored’ is the first album proper from avant-rock Warp signings Battles, and it seems to be dividing opinion somewhat. There are some that find it overly cerebral and irritating, whilst others seem to admire its rhythmic drive and foot-tapping qualities. The band certainly have technical pedigree, featuring former members of Don Caballero and Helmet, as well as Tyondai Braxton, son of free jazz legend Anthony Braxton. They are completely unafraid to show their chops – the opening ‘Race: In’ is about as dexterous and technically impressive as rock music gets. Luckily, it’s as exhilarating as it is confounding. Elsewhere, they prefer things quirky and goofy, as on lead single ‘Atlas’ with its peculiar vocals that completely eschew language. The best of the album provokes physical or visceral reactions, and the group interplay (particularly in the deft juxtaposition of electronic and conventional rock elements) is frequently compelling. The group become less engaging when they veer into abstraction though, and there’s a short section of the album (the close of ‘Rainbow’ leading into ‘Bad Trails’) that seems forced and out of place. Still, by the exhuberant, playful ‘Tij’ they’re more than back on track, and ‘Mirrored’ proves that rock music can still be bold and adventurous.

‘Noise Won’t Stop’ is the UK debut from Shy Child, a drums and synth duo that has inevitably been tagged with the rather ludicrous nu-rave label. The album shares some tracks with another album, ‘One With The Sun’, released elsewhere in the world last year, but unfortunately ignores the group’s two best moments (the outrageous ode to auto-fellatio ‘Down on Yourself’ and the insistent, clattering single ‘Technicrats’). There are plenty of treasures here in spite of this though, and what is likely to elevate this group above their similarly nostalgic contemporaries is the real sense of fun here. This is a tremendously entertaining record, all single finger synth lines, jittery drum beats, silly lyrics and bleepy noises. The collaboration with quirky rap outfit Spank Rock fits in perfectly. ‘Drop The Phone’, ‘Pressure to Come’ and ‘Kick Drum’, all three jerky and off kilter (essentially this seems to be club music for people who can’t dance), make for a killer opening trio. The group’s minimalism is perhaps a little limiting, and when they try for a smoother, more melodic sound on ‘Summer’ and ‘What’s It Feel Like?’ they come unstuck. ‘Cause and Effect’ is memorably delirious though – a fitting conclusion to a hugely enjoyable record.

For those that like their indie rock to come with a hefty dose of melodrama, ‘Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters’, the debut album from Scotland’s The Twilight Sad may just be the perfect tonic. One need only look at the titles to discern the group’s shameless lunges for grandeur (‘that summer, at home I had become the invisible boy’, ‘mapped by what surrounded them’, ‘and she would darken the memory’ – all set in consistently lower case letters). Yet, amidst the loftiness and grandiose theatrics there’s also plenty to like. The alternately shimmering and thunderous epic rock dynamics distance this music from the tepid template of most contemporary British guitar music. There’s also something inherently endearing in singer James Alexander Graham’s refusal to disguise his thick Scottish vowels and exaggerated consonants. For all the obvious swelling guitar crescendos, it’s the foregrounding of melody and emotive vocal lines that make this music effective. Similarly, the frequent use of accordion prevents the arrangements from becoming too swamped by the walls of abstract guitar noise. It’s interesting that all this has earned the band some serious plaudits – it sounds quite unfashionable in the current musical climate and if I can think of a clear reference point for this, it’s underrated Irish epic rockers Whipping Boy who spring most immediately to mind. A good friend of mine abandoned his early taste for indie rock by dismissing it as all about ‘trying to regress to the womb’. It’s an interesting notion, and one that this album does little to disprove, such is its focus on the torment of adolescence. Yet there’s an admirable empathy and perceptiveness at this album’s core that prevents it lapsing into caricature or mere bombast. It feels like a series of emotional highs and lows, which is exactly as it should feel.

It’s been a while since I’ve latched on to anything from the Kill Rock Stars label, but ‘In Advance of the Broken Arm’ by Marnie Stern is one of the albums of the year so far. It’s furious, high velocity rock and roll combining the visceral blues of Sleater Kinney with an unhinged and demented intricacy. It’s essentially a totally frenetic mess, but Stern is somehow gifted with the ability to shape these uncompromising elements into spirited, joyful and exhilarating music. It helps that she has the outrageously gifted drummer Zach Hill to work with. For Hill, a simple backbeat is never appropriate, and whilst he veers off in several unexpected tangents simultaneously, he always anchors the music to a clear pulse too, albeit usually a completely beserk one. Stern’s guitar playing rejects conventional riffing or soloing in favour of a constantly energetic high-end noodle, as if she’s been mainlining caffeine. With titles like ‘Plato’s Fucked Up Cave’ and (my personal favourite) ‘Put All Your Eggs in One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!’, there’s also plenty of humour here too. She’s supporting the outstanding Animal Collective at the Coronet in London in July – definitely a show not to miss.

More to come later this week – including albums from The National, Fennesz/Sakomoto and Elliott Smith as well as my thoughts on the superb Wilco gig last weekend. There’s also a whole set of inspirational releases from the ECM label that I need to get round to writing about!

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