Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2007, Part 11 (Leo, Ted – M.I.A.)

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Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Living with the Living/Mo’ Living EP

After his last two amazing releases, Ted Leo really has no one but himself to whom he has to measure up. On those grounds, Living with the Living slightly misses the mark. Luckily, Leo is one of the few songwriters out there whose second-rate work is technically still first-rate. Any album with highlights like “The Sons of Cain,” “Who Do You Love?,” and “Some Beginner’s Mind” could only be dragged down so far by a few bum tracks, especially when those bum tracks come off like the result of Leo’s ever-earnest energy and love of disparate music rather than aimlessness and hubris.

Yes, Leo and the Pharmacists stretch themselves a little too thin here, attempting to cover the most musical ground they’ve ever covered on disc. The results are mixed, not just from track to track, but within several songs. Most noticeably, he’s started reincorporating some of the extended codas that hampered 2001’s Tyranny of Distance. “La Costa Brava” starts off as, perhaps, one of the best songs ever about the simple human need for vacation, but Ted’s vacation seems to get off to an early start with about a minute and a half left in the song. The beginning of “The Lost Brigade” promises to send Leo and the boys into Minutemen-land for some angular funk, but soon straightens up into a reggae-tinged groove that goes along well enough for the first half of its 7:28, but repeats, mantra-like, for the second.

On the other hand, the risks pay off on “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.,” a vitriolic, fast-talking, percussive, Dismemberment Plan-like blast on the war in Iraq that resolves into an anthemic chorus. The straight-up reggae “The Unwanted Things” may be the furthest Leo gets from his comfort zone, but it’s informed by a sweet sentiment that makes it work.

Overall, if you’ve had it with Leo repeating himself, Living With the Living addresses these concerns. Even the stuff that’s somewhat reminiscent of the last two albums features some new tricks – “Colleen” may be the lightest, poppiest take yet on the shuffle behind “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” and “Counting Down the Hours,” and, if there were any doubt that Leo holds British pub rock as close to his heart as he does the Jam, “Who Do You Love?” expertly channels Graham Parker and early Elvis Costello as if to dismiss it. Conversely, if you like what Leo’s been doing up until now, about 3/4s of the album sticks to his tried’n’true formula.

Oh, yeah. The bonus EP sounds like a bonus EP. He made a good decision to keep these songs off of the album, even the title track, which, for better or worse, may be as close as Leo ever gets to metal.

Liars – s/t

Drum’s Not Dead is generally acknowledged as this band’s best effort to date and for good reason. Liars managed to fashion an entirely listenable album out of noise soundscapes, pummeled percussion, and chanted vocals. It’s nearly impossible to pin down why such an album would work (much less if it actually conveys the metaphorical creative struggle the band has said it’s meant to convey, lyrically). However, it would be expecting too much from any band to capture that sort of lightning in a bottle twice*. They don’t try. Instead, Liars fuses the raw, noisy sound of the band’s earlier work with more traditional rock tempos and styles, if not structures. Opener “Plaster Casts of Everything” drives a distorted keyboard riff into the ground and tacks on a satisfying, resolving coda. As if to testify to the band’s new commitment to a wider range and actual songs, it’s followed by “Houseclouds,” a danceable track with actual pop hooks. Then, just as you might be expecting this trend to continue, they launch “Leather Prowler,” a noise and rhythm track just as abrasive as anything off of Drum’s Not Dead. Or pre-EVOL Sonic Youth, for that matter. In fact, a crucial realization that Liars and the early Sonic Youth seem to have in common (and something that Deerhunter, for instance, misses) is that even the most abrasive noise can have hooks.

This pattern of riff-driven rock, punctuated by melodic hooks and noise, continues throughout, occasionally manifesting in songs that share all three, like the Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired “Freak Out” and “Clear Island.” It all ends with the surprisingly pretty, organ-driven hymn, “Protection.” Liars may ultimately be a less important album than Drum’s Not Dead, but there’s something to be said for accessibility – I think I’ll be returning to this one more often.

*Admission – I have, but haven’t listened to, their earlier They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, which is said to be their first and flawed attempt to pull off a conceptual noise album.

Low – Drums and Guns

I got on the Low bandwagon relatively recently, with the uncharacteristic The Great Destroyer from 2005. That album seemed to signal a transition to a more standard rock sound with faster songs, big hooks, and louder guitars. I was a little surprised to find that Drums and Guns is a return to slow tempos and subtlety and wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much. Instead, it’s made quite an impression on the few spins I’ve given it so far. There’s a lot of variety, rhythmically and instrumentally on Drums and Guns, with drum machines giving the songs as much character as the spare guitar lines and chanted words. The war hangs heavy over it, the vocals intoning its indeterminate horrors seemingly as if from the ghosts of casualties and the disembodied thoughts of mourners. But the highlight might just be “Hatchet,” a more personal statement on inter-personal relationships and pop radio filtered through the fabled Beatles/Stones feud.

Menomena – Friend and Foe

I kind of wish I had more to write about this album. I get a lot of musical recommendations (and music, actually) from two friends who don’t really know each other that well. One leans toward more straightforward indie rock (Sonic Youth, Death Cab, etc.), shoegazer stuff, and even old metal. The other leans toward what I’d characterize as the indie pop avant-garde – Animal Collective, Akron/Family, Sunset Rubdown, etc. If you drew a Venn diagram of our tastes, my circle would probably overlap pretty significantly with both of them, while their circles might not overlap quite as much. So when both of these guys, totally independently, told me earlier this year that Friend or Foe was one of their favorite releases of the year, I was very much intrigued. I was further intrigued to find out that Craig Thompson (who wrote the excellent Blankets) designed a nifty CD cover for it:

In any case, I’ve had this CD roughly since it came out, and it doesn’t impress me as much more than a pretty decent indie rock album with a slight penchant for experimental rhythms and some pretty hooks. It seems like the cool sounds got the better of Menomena a little bit. I don’t detect a lot of passion here, and, while they don’t sound like any other band I can name specifically, it just feels like I’ve heard this before. Even though the tunes get stuck in my head (“Wet and Rusting” is particularly good at this), nothing about this resonates with me much.

M.I.A. – Kala

Sure, it may be one of the best albums of the year (top 20, at least, for me – maybe top 10), but it might just leave you with a headache for your trouble. For all the (deservedly) great reviews Kala is getting, I’m surprised that few have mentioned just how abrasive this thing is. For an ostensibly pop-friendly beat-driven political album, it has the dense, immersive, noisy feel of Public Enemy at its peak or Tricky in Pre-Millenium Tension mode. Songs like “Bird Flu” and “Boyz” can be quite off-putting at first. It took me a while before I warmed to Kala, but I kept with it on the promises made by “20 Dollar,” a fairly amazing musical hybrid of New Order and a slow-grinding hip hop beat, and a fairly amazing lyrical hybrid that covers African poverty, M.I.A.’s critical reception, and the Pixies (literally). Now, every time I listen to Kala, I hear more and more in it. I didn’t care for Arular all that much, and I think this had little to do with M.I.A.’s delivery, but with the music. I’m not going to pretend to know the styles she’s referencing beyond hip hop and rock, but it seems to me that this, not Manu Chao or whomever, is true world music, even though the combinations are often deliberately jarring and difficult. Kala is the sound of an artist disregarding genre, but somehow it never lacks focus.

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Written by Dave

December 22, 2007 at 4:11 pm

3 Responses

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  1. It’s interesting that M.I.A. raps about Africa so much, because her sound reminds me of Afrika Bambaataa and other assorted electro. She replaces the more electronic sound for her traditional Sri Lankan instruments, but the way they are sampled make it very very obvious that they are sampled sounds, especially in songs like “Boyz” and “Bamboo Banger”. So where you see New Order, I’m thinking it’s maybe a bit like Kraftwerk.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 24, 2007 at 6:30 pm

  2. I wasn’t referencing the style so much as the melody in that particular song. I’m pretty sure “20 Dollar” is based on either a drastically slowed-down sample of or a deliberate recreation of the bassline for “Blue Monday.”

    But, yeah, some parts of Kala do have that Kraftwerk by way of Bambaata sound. A lot of the electronic beats augmenting those percussion samples have that pingy, late 70s/early 80s vibe.

    Dave

    December 25, 2007 at 12:32 am

  3. Oh shit, you’re right, that’s totally Blue Monday.

    Patrick Ripoll

    December 25, 2007 at 10:41 am


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