Monday, April 23, 2007

Close but No Cigar

Well, if anyone actually reads this thing regularly, they'd know that I just finished listing my favourite ten records of all time. For those of them who really give a shit, here's the list again:

1. OK Computer - Radiohead
2. ( ) - Sigur Ros
3. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
4. Bitches Brew - Miles Davis
5. Abbey Road - The Beatles
6. Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan
7. Kid A - Radiohead
8. Strange Bird - Augie March
9. Mothership Connection - Parliament
10. Pink Moon - Nick Drake

Having put all that out on paper, so to speak, I thought I'd list a few of the records that I shortlisted, primarily as I felt guilty for not mentioning some of my favourite albums on a post listing my favourite albums. So it is with a mixture of congratulatory and apologetic glee I offer (In no real order - possibly alphabetic if I get anal retentive):

Air - Moon Safari: No one does ambient like this.
At The Drive-In - Relationship of Command: The best hard rock album of all time, hands down.
Beck - Odelay: A new kind of genius emerged when this appeared in 1996.
Belle and Sebastian - Tigermilk: 'She's Losing It' is the template for all pop music.
Bjork - Debut: Ditto Beck.
Blur - Think Tank: Everyone talks about Parklife and Gorillaz, but this is Blur's, and Damon Albarn's, watershed moment.
Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde: Just because of the front sleeve haircut.
Can - Tago Mago: Multinational, multicultural, totally mental, all awesome.
Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - Safe as Milk: Everyone talks about Trount Mask Replica, but this is the classic.
David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The first and only glam rock record to stand the test of time.
David Bowie - Aladdin Sane: The perfect way to follow up Ziggy.
Doves - Lost Souls: Former dance trio create moody, Mancunian magic.
Elbow - Cast of Thousands: Mellow Radiohead. More sad, less angry, just as beautiful.
Frank Zappa - Hot Rats: Would be in just for the Beefheart vocal cut, but the other 59 minutes are equally awesome.
Happy Mondays - Pills'n'Thrills and Bellyaches: The 'Madchester' scene redefined rock'n'roll, and this defined Madchester.
Jimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced: The biggest and best hands of all time.
Led Zeppelin - III: Only in ahead of I and IV because of 'Bron-Y-Aur Stomp'.
Massive Attack - Blue Lines: Revolutionary in every conceivable way; still being copied 15 years later.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus: He rhymed 'Orpheus' with 'orifice'. Enough said.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - And No More Shall We Part: Sadness was never this stunning.
Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left: What 60s folk music was all about.
Peter Gabriel - So: The only person ever to make Worldbeat sound cool.
Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here: Just overblown and pretentious enough.
Portishead - Dummy: Built on Massive Attack's foundations, and pumped it full of acid.
Pulp - Different Class: 'Common People' is the best angry bloke song ever.
Queens of the Stone Age - Rated (R): 'Feelgood Hit of the Summer' might just be the best SONG ever.
Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine: I stole their name, so I owe them. And it's amazing too.
Rufus Wainwright - Want Two: High camp and high drama will never dance this closely again.
Sigur Ros - Aegaetis Byrjun: Sheer. Icelandic. Maginificence.
Sly and The Family Stone - There's a Riot Goin' On: Funk and angry militant activism. One potent mix.
Sufjan Stevens - Come On! Feel the Illinoise!: It's totally unreal, it shouldn't work, but it SO does.
Super Furry Animals - Rings around the World: The best album by the band with the best name.
Television - Marquee Moon: All guitarists - actually, all humans - ahould hear this record.
The Arcade Fire - Funeral: Probably the best debut album since Bjork.
The Avalanches - Since I left You: Another Aussie entry, and redefined what Aussie music could mean to the world at large.
The Beatles - Revolver: The pefect balance between pop melodies and avant-garde. Brilliant.
The Beatles - Rubber Soul: The turning point for this most incredible band. A lot of people till haven't figured out what 'Norwegian Wood' is all about.
The Cure - Disintegration: Another fine entry into the pantheon of glum rock. However, it's the flashes of happy that make this a classic.
The Frames - For the Birds: Ireland's best ever (and I'm aware of where U2 come from), make their best ever.
The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow: For unashamedly poppy pop music, this is incredibly important and foot-tappy.
The Smiths - The Queen is Dead: I love Morrissey.
The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico: This must have pissed off a lot of people who though Sgt Peppers was controversial.
Tom Waits - Sworfishtrombones: Waits' Revolver. The midpoint and highpoint of an incredible career.
Tricky - Maxinquaye: Music at its most technicolour.
TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain: Probably too soon, but in time, this will be on every all-time list.
Wilco - A Ghost is Born: Hard to pay attention to after YHF, but nearly as good, and the good bits are probably better.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Roger, Wilco!

Go Wilco. One of the best bands in the world put on one of the best shows in the world on Wednesday night at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. The new lineup gelled as if they had been together for decades, the set as tight as any I've had the pleasure of bearing witness to. The addition of jazz guitarist Nels Cline an obvious bonus as he shredded his way through the numerous freeform guitar solos on tracks like 'Handshake Drugs', 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' and 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart'.
I went in to the show hoping that I could see 'Handshake Drugs' and 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart', and then I'd go home happy. Three songs in, my wishes had been satisfied and I could sit back in anticipation of a killer show. Two and a quarter hours and two encores later, the crowd still going bananas, singer Jeff Tweedy, a different man having dispensed of his various vices and addictions, came out and once again demonstrated the astonishing connection he developed with the crowd during the show by performing solo, with an acoustic, and no amplification. I haven't the faintest idea what song it was. But I have never known 2,000 people to be in a confined space and be so utterly silent, before completely erupting at the close of the song. It was truly one of the most magic moments I have witnessed at a music gig, not least as the uplifting nature of the lyrics served as a glorious underlining of the new Tweedy, a positivity refelcted in the five or so tracks from the upcoming Sky Blue Sky, which if Wednesday night was any indication, is set to be an absolute corker.
But it really was Tweedy's show, with his sparkling wit shining through in his wonderful repartee with the (possibly inebriated) Melbourne crowd, his efforts to create (further) tension between Melburnians and their Brisbane couterparts a real highlight. When a band can combine incredible songs with an awesome performance and a charismatic frontman, they're on a winner. And even before the final, glorious solo from Tweedy, as the 'Poor Places/Spiders (Kidsmoke)' double wrapped up, it was indelibly clear just how much of a winner they (and we) were on.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our Earthly Pleasures by Maximo Park

When you're onto a good thing, you're faced with a heap of choices:

Push new boundaries, challenge yourself and your listeners.

Soullessly attempt to recreate whatever it was you first did in an attempt to benefit with more money and/or groupies.

Stick to it.

Happily, Maximo Park have chosen door number three with their second long player, Our Earthly Pleasures, which comes to us replete with a similar formula that worked so successfully on 2005's A Certain Trigger. Guitars alternate between post-punk and modern-day melodicism (yes, I just invented a word, what are you going to do?), anchored by a solid if unimaginative rhythm section and glued together by some inventive keyboards and the wonderfully Yorkshire-esque vocal stylings of frontman Paul Smith. While Smith has little to say that is particularly shocking or personally revealing, he says it in such a way that you can't help but be moved. 'I've got no-one to call/In the middle of the night anymore' he glumly announces on lead single 'Our Velocity', which smoothly alternates between the riffing heaviness of 'Limassol' from their debut and the delicate chorus of 'The Coast is Always Changing'.

This song stands as the midpoint of an opening triple-salvo which proves to those willing to listen that Maximo Park are one of the better exponents of perfectly melodic pop-rock going around at the moment. Opener 'Girls Who Play Guitar' puts a quirky lyrical slant on a standard breakup tale, complete with catchy backing vocals from the band, while the final chorus of 'Books from Boxes' will win over even the most cold-hearted.

While, at 13 tracks, Our Earthly Pleasures threatens to overstay its welcome (and there are a few weaker tracks towards the back before being resuced by 'Nosebleed' and 'Robert Altman'), it is more than atoned by numerous moments of sheer joyful wonder. With a charming frontman, and a knack for bridges and choruses that can't help but brighten your day, Maximo Park are onto a good thing. Here's hoping they don't stick to it for too long.

3 1/2 stars

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Friday, April 13, 2007

All time top ten - #1 - OK Computer

Yes, it's a cliche. We've finally reached the point where it's now totally uncool to say that OK Computer is your favourite record ever. Uber-hipsters are disowning this record faster than Germans dispensed with Nazism in 1945, labelling it 'boring', 'overrated' and 'pretentious' to name but three of the less vitriolic adjectives that have been hurled its way in the music press and amonsgt the public musical intelligentsia of late.
Now I understand the desire to recant a love of a record that received phenomenal hype upon its release, the very essence of being musically literate, conscious and current is obscurity. And hype (and it's evil twin, popularity) is the natural enemy of obscurity. Your favourite Led Zeppelin song can't be Stairway to Heaven, it has to be The Lemon Song or (my favourite) What is And What Should Never Be. Owning up to loving something that is loved not only by millions of people, but millions of people who are unaware of who Nick Drake and Husker Du are, is the very essence of not being cool.

But revisionist history is a very evil thing indeed. Just as I imagine the music world probably turned on Sgt Peppers in 1977, and definitely turned on Off the Wall in 1988, ten years after the release of OK Computer, people decided to get it in their heads that they, and the rest of the world, were wrong after all, and it wasn't that great a record, we simply got carried away because it was WAY different from BritPop and we all loved The Bends so much.
Well, I feel compelled to disagree. Vehemently. It is not boring. In fact OK Computer is so exciting that even today, nearly 520 weeks after its release, it still sounds current, fresh, imaginative, as I imagine it will continue to do well into the distant future, much as the sprawling reverse flute breakdown at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever will always sound abstract and cool, no matter how many bands copy it and attempt to rob it of its lustre. Some music defies time.

Radiohead had already formed a habit (which continues today) of announcing their intentions with not only the opening track, but the opening bars of the opening track. Witness the empty cold wind of Planet Xerox, the descending keyboard refrain of Everything in its Right Place I or the sound of a guitar plugging into an amplifier on the latest return to guitar rock, Hail to the Thief. On OK Computer, Airbag announced the epic scope to come with a triumphal, soaring guitar riff, leaving no doubt in the listener's mind as to what kind of aural assault they wer in for. Drums loop, guitars squeal, mystery guitar and vocal sounds are cut up and scratched on a turntable, while melopies blend into each other and guitars morph into choirs singing a counterpoint to Thom Yorke's vocals in the final, mindblowing chorus and outro. Anyone who doubts the impact of this record should be challenged to sit in a dark room with headphones on and listen to that song, and not find themselves short of breath by the end. And that's just the opening song. The opening line, 'In the next world war/In a jack-knifed juggernaut/I am born again' recalls a time when lyrics were not only left open to interpretation, but were actively encouraged to be interpreted as the listener saw fit.
An ongoing theme across the record fear of the new, impersonal world being created by the increasing intrusion of computers into our lives, and the social disconnection they create. That the bulk of the album was recorded with the overt asssistance of newly available computer technology, lent the entire work a sense of irony that, in lesser hands, would have seemed churlish. 'Such a pretty house/Such a pretty garden' on No Surprises, or 'The dust/The screaming/The yuppies networking/.../God loves his children, Yeah!' from the schitzophrenic masterpiece, Paranoid Android positively yell this from the rooftops, alternating between sorrowful longing on the former and outright rage on the latter.
Radiohead manage to namedrop Bob Dylan's famous moment when he 'plugged in' on Subterranean Homesick Alien, clearly an indication that the band knew full well how this record was likely to be received. But here's the thing. When the chorus kicks in, with its gradually swelling and ebbing guitar and gorgeously escalating keyboard coda, with Yorke wailing 'Uptight/We're all uptight', none of it really matters. You can't help but be swept along with it all, as with the vitriolic, vituperative and viscious interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, Exit Music (For a Film), where sheer fury and indignation have never sounded so gorgeous.
Clearly there are 11 songs (and a computer-generated poem) on OK Computer, but it doesn't quite seem necessary to discuss them all. They're best left a mystery, on the off chance that someone who is yet to hear them can experience the sheer emotional tsunami that the first (and indeed, tenth and hundredth) listen of OK Computer can create. Right now, the final verse of Let Down is echoing in my headphones, and for the millionth time, I feel moved to tears.
Pretentious? Yes. But who cares, when it's so beautiful. Overrated? Probably. It's widely regarded as the greatest thing ever by alot of people, and clearly there is no one greatest record EVER, but it's my favourite. And don't you ever call it boring.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Runaways by Art of Fighting

Art of Fighting deserve to be written about purely due to the distinct lack of effort they go to to promote themselves. In fact, it's hard enough to find an AoF gig in their hometown of Melbourne. And for a band that has produced three quality records over seven years, that's pretty understated in anyone's terms.

But more about record number three. Runaways, released in a flurry of inactivity by both band and label, comes packaged in the now-familiar artwork of singer/guitarist Ollie Brown, and announces itself in a similar fashion. Somehow, Art of Fighting have managed to actually become more unassuming over the years. Where once they could be relied on to throw in a couple of radio-friendly numbers (think 'Akula', 'Reasons are all I Have Left' and 'Along the Run'), the closest they get to those positively hook-laden numbers (by comparison) are the choruses of tracks two and three, 'Distance as Virtue' and 'Free You', while the horns on 'Territories', while hardly hook-ish, are positively gorgeous. However, it is the lead single, the sweeping, floating 'Eastbound' that stands out head and shoulders above the rest.

None of this is to suggest that Runaways is in any way an inferior recording by this Melbourne four-piece. In fact, it is possible that this may stand as their greatest work yet. A fair portion of their appeal, and the appeal of this record, is the complete lack of pretension, hyperbole and general wank that is so easily identified. It's unclear whether the band members hold down day jobs, but the sheer grounded-ness and resolute determination to avoid fame and fortune allows the music to come screaming to the fore, without any songs jumping up and down screaming for your attention.

For a band that seems to spend so little time touring, Runaways is a record very much about life on the road, with titles such as 'Distance as Virtue', 'Eastbound', 'Ride After Ride' and 'In the Free Blue' suggesting as much. The notion of travel is routinely explored as a metaphor for personal growth, going from travel on buses and trains to 'Past drinking/Past smoking'.

Listeners expecting bombast, attention seeking, arrogance and other such contrivances will find themselves bitterly disappointed with Runaways, everyone else will most likely find themselves charmed by another understated, intelligent, melodic and beguiling entry into the Art of Fighting canon.

4 stars

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MySpace Against the Rage!

That's right folks, Machines Against the Rage has succumbed to the unrelenting pressure of people I've never met to get involved in the world's greatest phenomenon...MySpace. Go visit and sign up as a friend if you like. Please bear in mind, it's still a work in progress!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem

The malaise affecting dance music (as well as hip hop, incidentally) today is an obvious one. Its practitioners are almost uniformly lazy. Come up with a catchy beat, find an appropriate sample (currently in vogue are 80s New Wave and New Romatics numbers), repeat ad nauseum, stir. The true tragedy is that these records find their way to dancefloors everywhere, and drunk and high university students go nuts to them. So thank God for LCD Sound System.

So what does silver sound like? Pretty bloody good, it would seem. Immaculately conceived, drawing from influences as diverse as Berlin-era Bowie, Kraftwerk (obviously), Human League, Blondie, and stapled together by good helpings of the punk ethos, with Sounds of Silver, LCD Sound System has created one of those rare records. A genre album that defies genre, anachronistic in its insistence in avoiding what is current and cool, and just making a kick-arse recording. But bear in mind, this is unquestionably a dance record. Superbly recorded, every rapid-fire hi-hat clash and bass drum thud comes through loud and clear at the front of the mix, beats, while varied, practically demand that your feet start tapping at the very least.

Also, unlike almost every other dance recording of recent years, some thought has actually gone into the lyrical content. Much like 2005s LCD Soundsystem, a chief theme running through the record is James Murphy's attempts to come to terms with getting older. As with 'Losing my Edge' off that record, songs like 'All My Friends' cry age-weariness all over, such as 'You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan/And the next five years trying to be with your friends again', a clear call of confusion from a man who spent his youth living hard on the dance scene suddenly finding himself not wanting to 'stagger home'.

The songwriting and craftsmanship on this record also set it far apart from its peers. Murphy displays an amazing ability to mould a song to suit its role, be it four-minute storming single 'Time to Get Away', or longer, languid heartbreakers such as 'Someone Great', with its personal tragedy clear, but the details agonisingly hidden in the obscure, yet heartfelt and pertinent words.

Closing on the Nouveau-Jazz-Blues-ish 'New York, I Love You, but you're Bringing me Down', this sense of gradually increasing disatisfaction at being in stasis in New York in his forties is brought home just as effectively in a more downbeat fashion, closing out a record much as his big nights out probably wrap up these days, tired, worn and sitting down with a cup of tea.

2007 is turning into something of a wonderful vintage.

4 1/2 stars

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Because of the Times by Kings of Leon

Woah. Kings of Leon, the band that brought you 'Slow Night, So Long', a tale about deflowering a young groupie from boredom then passing out from overindulgence in who knows what, open their new record, Because of the Times, named for a Pentecostal seminar they regularly attended with their preacher father, with 'Knocked Up', a seven minute tale of a young couple on the road, with an impending childbirth, disapproving parents, and, no doubt, The Man hot on their tail. "She don't care what her mama said, no/She's gonna have my baby/I'm taking all i have to take/This takings gonna shake me", this could be the tale of Madonna's ertswhile boyfriend from 'Papa Don't Preach'. Highlighted by a driftng guitar coda reminiscent of something The Edge would play, deep fried and doused in bourbon, this is a true statement of intent.

However, this is a record influenced as much by Thin Lizzy and The Pixies as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Credence Clearwater Revival. 'Fans' is a rollicking yet gentle hoe-down, while 'The Runner' and 'Arizona' are genuinely heart-warming ballads. The latter sounding reminiscent of 2005's terrific contribution by Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. 'Trunk', another tale of melodrama on the road (road music usually something most bands simply assume means complaining about how hard touring is), with it's woozy 'wooo-ooooh-ooohs' is worthy of The Band at its peak.

This is not to say that the record's short of stompers. 'Charmer', 'On Call', 'McFearless' and 'My Party' all keep the tempo up without detracting from the band's newfound dramatic intensity. In fact, they all serve to enhance it, irrespective of the subject matter. Influences shift from 80's new wave to 20's bluegrass, all without a drop of irony or disrespect.

Kings of Leon have shown an astonishing leap forward in musicianship, maturity and skill. No longer the swamp-rock kings of the type who supported U2, Pearl Jam and Bob Dylan, this is a band doing things no one thought they were capable of, and as such have opened up whole new questions about what they can do next.

A new benchmark for 2007 has been set.

4 1/2 stars

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