Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 11 (Ra Ra Riot – Sigur Rós)

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In an effort to catch up, I’m resorting to a “clever” rating device for this post in honor of the new season of Lost (possible spoilers ahead).

Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line
Ra Ra Riot garnered a lot of acclaim and criticism on the idea that they’re some sort of Arcade Fire-Vampire Weekend synthesis.  The Arcade Fire comparison really doesn’t hold up aside from regular use of stringed instruments and death informing the release of their debut album (while Arcade Fire mourned the deaths of relatives on Funeral, The Rhumb Line is haunted by a recently-deceased bandmate).  The Vampire Weekend comparison, however, is apt.  While the spirit is far more melancholy, there’s a shared talent for melody, and the lead vocals that split the difference between the boyishness of Ezra Koenig (complete with what I think might be a regional accent – they share some odd vocal tics) and the aloof swagger of Spoon’s Britt Daniel.  Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend have done some touring together, so I’d be hesitant to pin either as the imitator, but they seem to have some shared aesthetic ideas.

In reading about this album prior to writing the review, I like it even a little better.  “Dying is Fine,” which reminds me a little of ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon’s long-forgotten Mexican-influenced surf/pop band, Havana 3 A.M., apparently steals some lines and key concepts from e.e. cummings.  And I had no idea that “Suspended in Gaffa,” possibly my favorite track, is a Kate Bush cover.

The Rhumb Line is Juliet.  I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but I soon learned to appreciate it on its own merits.  Just as Juliet may have been viewed as a superfluous Jack love interest when the writers hadn’t even made good use of the existing female cast, Ra Ra Riot may seem like a redundant addition to any collection that already has Vampire Weekend in it – but it’s actually different enough to warrant some attention.  Perhaps not a main player, but a solid addition to the cast.

The Roots – Rising Down
For Christmas, I got Love Train:  The Sound of Philadelphia, a wonderful primer on 70s Philly soul, and it helped illustrate something about the Roots for me – hip-hop (at least as the Roots perform it), though soul-influenced, is not soul.  There’s a constant battle between the band’s impulse to retain some sort of fidelity to the idea of hip-hop by emphasizing the beat and the words and a pronounced proclivity toward melody and instrumentation – hooks, for lack of a better term.  At their best, they manage to incorporate these warring tendencies into tight songs (see 1993’s Things Fall Apart for a terrific set of well-integrated soul and hip-hop), but, lately, it seems like the band has been having more trouble reconciling them.

Rising Down, at first, comes off like a less melody-focused set with “Rising Down” “Get Busy,” and “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” three words’n’beats-driven tracks setting the tone.  They’re fine, but undistinguished.  I’ve never taken to Black Thought as a lyricist or MC, so the songs suffer for me when it’s mostly on him to do the heavy lifting (even when there are plenty of guests pitching in).  The emphasis gradually shifts to the musical, though, and it helps considerably.  “I Will Not Apologize,” “I Can’t Help It,” and “Singing Man” all have wonderfully catchy choruses, and “Unwritten” is half-sung.  By the end of the album, the band has taken a turn toward catchy, reggae-influenced pop with “Birthday Girl.”  It’s not a perfect song, but I wish the Roots would do more like it (and like “Rising Up,” another song that stretches the musicality of their sound)- why waste a terrific live band on beats and basslines that could just as easily have been composed on a computer?

Rising Down is Jack.  Generally dependable, but his flashback/flashforward episodes are always somewhat dependant on the other castmembers (or guest artists) involved.  Also, like The Roots, Jack is torn between hard, cold reason (the hard rhymes of Black Thought) and the call of the island (the musical explorations of ?uestlove and the other instrumentalists).

Santogold – s/t
A female artist of color with multicultural influences, pop savvy, and an occasional penchant for hip-hop?  Oh, surely we must be talking about M.I.A., right?  That was the initial perception pushed out by the less perceptive folks in the music press.  As it turns out, it’s almost completely untrue (“almost” only because of a few moments, like “Creator” that might draw a connection between the two artists).

If anything, Santogold is far more of a Beck figure, plundering various genres and sub-genres to create winning, accessible pop music.  So, while there’s a little hip-hop, the most audible influences curiously come from the radio-friendly side of early 80s post-punk/new wave (who would have predicted that Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons would be a key vocal influence on a much-touted Next Big Thing in 2008, but “Lights Out” suggests that this is the case).  Even her forays into reggae and ska grooves don’t seem so much borrowed from Jamaican culture, but borrowed from British and American bands who borrowed them from Jamaican culture.

Yet, despite all of this appropriation, Santogold makes this stuff sound undeniably new and utterly listenable.  In fact, her influences are so wonderfully integrated that it’s hard to imagine that she intended the wonderful “L.E.S Artistes” to sound like the best Tegan and Sara single of the year; things probably just came together that way.

Santogold is Sayid.  At first, she seemed like she might be a little more militant, based on those early M.I.A. comparisons, but it turns out that she’s all pop song heart.  Just as each of the Sayid episodes has brought the goods, so do each of the songs on this well-rounded, immensely likeable debut.

Jenny Scheinman – Crossing the Field and s/t
Scheinman is a violinist in that crowd of New York jazz artists who, once you notice them, seem to pop up everywhere (see also:  Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Greg Cohen, etc.).  Like a few in that bunch, she’s released albums on John Zorn’s label (among them The Rabbi’s Lover, a terrific klezmer-influenced album along the lines of Zorn’s Masada recordings), recorded with very non-edgy types like Norah Jones, and has sat in with the band on Elvis Costello’s new talk show.  So you have to give her credit for diversity.

Unfortunately, that propensity to genre-hop backfires a little on her self-titled album, an attempt at country and folk-influenced songs that feature Scheinman on vocals.  It’s not that any of the Scheinman-penned songs are bad, exactly, nor are the covers (aside from an inexplicably extended version of Tom Waits’ short, sweet “Johnsburg, Illinois”), but the performances just aren’t particularly memorable, and her voice isn’t nearly as flexible or impressive as her violin-playing.

This is even more clear in light of the expressive Crossing the Field, an instrumental jazz effort that effortlessly evokes the rural, wide open spaces usually associated with the very folk and country she attempts on the self-titled album.  At the same time, it’s balanced with an urban sophistication – sort of like Copland filtered through Rhapsody in Blue on a more intimate scale.

These two albums are Sawyer.  Just as Lost becomes bogged down whenever we’re forced to deal with the interminable Kate/Sawyer relationship subplot, Scheinman’s self-titled album seems forced, a not-so-compelling mix of artist and genre.  But if you put Sawyer into his natural environment – swindling, devising nicknames for Hurley, allowing his natural bravery to emerge when his friends are engangered – he shines, just like Crossing the Field.

She & Him – Volume 1
Volume 1 is a breezy collection of 60s-inflected originals and appealing, if by-the-numbers, covers that’s probably gotten a little more attention than it deserves based on the artists’ respective day jobs (that is, manic pixie dream girl of both big and small screen and subdued indie singer-songwriter type).  Still, Zooey Deschanel’s songs have a simple charm to them, and her straightforward, unadorned voice is a perfect instrument for them.  M. Ward does a nice job building the production around her without overwhelming – this may sound like something that could have come out of the Brill Building, but Phil Spector wasn’t around that day.

Volume 1 is Claire.  Cute and affectingly melancholy, but not so remarkable that we can’t go a season without her (as we soon will, I hear).

Shearwater – Rook
At one time merely an Okkervil River side-project, Rooks sees Shearwater come into their own.  While not all that sonically different than their previous album, Palo Santo, Jonathan Meiburg and company tighten and refine what made that album so memorable, basically coming up with Palo Santo 2.0.  It seems simultaneously shorter and more epic due to some nicely varied tempos and song lengths, as well as an impressive use of dynamics, starting with a mighty guitar-and-horn blast out-of-nowhere midway through opener “On the Death of the Waters.”

If “Leviathan” and “Century Eyes” sound like songs on Palo Santo, it can’t be denied that they’re improvements on the formula.  Meanwhile, “Rooks” is easily the strongest song from either album (I admit to not having heard their first three albums), and “Snow Leopard” is a beautiful, piano-driven, distant cousin to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song.”

It also has my pick for album cover of the year.  Striking and perfecltly matched to the sound within.

Rook is Faraday – mysterious, but shakey and occasionally stirred to agitation.  Also, as Faraday is single-minded in his examination of the island’s bizarre temporal abnormalities, Meiburg is an ornithologist and his obsession with birds comes through in the title track (there’s also a related focus on nature in many of the other songs).

The Shivers – Beaks to the Moon
Beaks to the Moon is Scott or Steve, the two background guys who get confused for each other.  It’s actually not a bad album (especially the cover of The Velvet Underground’s “There Is No Reason” and the reggae-tinged “Hey, Mr. Officer”), but, despite some clever lyrics and catchy moments, it just doesn’t stick with me.

Sigur Rós – Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
Tðsí óesíg ilðum – eð endalaust róvuðm, suð.  Aðegit við! Just kidding.  I’ve got no idea what those squiggles mean, either.  Stretches of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust should come as little surprise to Sigur Rós fans.  Much as their native Icelandic appears to most of us English speakers, it’s mysteriously foreign, but it’s a mystery to which we’ve now become accustomed; slow, atmospheric crawls coated in reverb and fronted by a falsetto who might as well be speaking Elvish for all his voice and language have in common with most popular singers.

But it’s those other stretches of the album that most impress.  If the innovations on previous albums were subtle (and welcome, although I don’t know if they’ve ever surpassed their breakthrough Ágætis byrjun in terms of sheer beauty and consistency), it seems like the band is ready to start taking some more chances with formula.  “Gobbledigook” starts things off downright playfully, a word not often associated with Sigur Rós.  It’s a drum-heavy, melodically-loaded foray into Animal Collective territory, and they wear it extremely well (better than Animal Collective do, themselves, a lot of the time).  The upbeat feeling is even more pronounced on “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur,” a jubilant re-tooling of the strings, choir-like vocals, and dynamics for which the band is known into pure celebration with only a hint of melancholy.  Other tracks lean more heavily on acoustic guitar than the band ever has before (“Illgresi”, in fact, is almost all acoustic guitar and voice)  and its usual contemplative sadness is broken up by faster tempos and triumphant optimism.

I think I’d still recommend Ágætis byrjun as the ideal entry point for Sigur Rós, if only for the fact that it seems most “them” – an entirely new thing, practically free of obvious influence.  But Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust expands their range considerably, and it’s quite impressive in its own right.

Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust is Locke.  Mysterious, yet earthy and vulnerable.  And just when you think you have Locke pinned down as unable to separate himself from his pattern of being taken advantage of, he throws you a curveball by shooting Naomi or taking up with The Others.

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Written by Dave

January 15, 2009 at 6:00 pm

5 Responses

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  1. It’s funny you say that about Birthday Girl, b/c that song was born out of the studio wanting a single from the band, and them doing it as a compromise and being VERY unhappy with the result. It’s not available on every release of the album. I personally like the song, but not as a Roots song anyway…”Rising Up” had a direct influence from the DC go-go style, which guest star Wale and the singer are from, so if you liked the style of that song, keep an eye out for Wale (whose album is being produced by Mark Ronson and is going to bring go-go to the masses big time).

    Also, LOVE the concept post.

    Euge

    January 15, 2009 at 8:47 pm

  2. Great concept.

    I’ll echo what Euge was saying about “Rising Up” and Wale. That line about real rappers not eatin’, they Olsen-twinnin’ is so awesomely bad it’s genius. Pure genius.

    And I’ve listened to that Shearwater album almost as many times as The Stand Ins. Almost.

    Andrew Eaton

    January 16, 2009 at 1:28 am

  3. Also, Wale’s “The Kramer” is a great song. What the hell’s up with Seinfeld (Wale, Titus Andronicus, etc.) and John Berryman getting referenced this year?

    Andrew Eaton

    January 16, 2009 at 1:43 am

  4. I have that Wale Seinfeld mixtape thing ready for the marathon, but it’ll be a first listen. Haven’t heard Titus Andronicus yet.

    The seemingly synchronized references always baffle me. I always feel like I missed some single, unifying element like a wildly successful new Berryman biography being published or something. Same thing happened with Bukowski (and Fante, to a lesser degree) a few years ago. The random hip lit references were so prevalent at one point, that when Conor Oberst referenced Don Delillo on a Bright Eyes album, I started wondering if he’d be next, but it didn’t happen.

    I feel like the duality of what the Roots represent will nag at me for as long as they release albums. It seems like they’re in the ideal position to really experiment with hip-hop. Having a great live backing band offers tons of flexibility, and you could see some of this on Phrenology in particular (a hardcore punk snippet? hip-hop over a pseudo-Bo Diddley beat?). But they always dig in their heels, seemingly for the sake of Black Thought and what sounds to me like a fairly traditional style of delivery.

    Dave

    January 16, 2009 at 11:04 am

  5. The Roots frustrate me too. I have and will continue to buy their albums (though I heard that awful rumor about the Jimmy Fallon show. That’s still just a rumor right?), but they have the capacity to make music that as at once experimental or envelope-pushing, and have in several instances acknowledged this (Phrenology, like you said). Black Thought might be part of the problem. “75 Bars” is pretty decent though – he sounds like he could just keep going at it if they didn’t cut the song off. But yeah, The Roots definitely find their strength in numbers.

    The year’s most bizarre moment on an album comes from that Wale Mixtape About Nothing. “Don’t you think my kids are gonna think I’m so cool that I’m on this mixtape MOTHAFUCKER?!”

    You’ll get that one soon.

    Andrew Eaton

    January 16, 2009 at 3:39 pm


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