Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 12 (Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – TV on the Radio)

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My original intent was to finish this by the end of January, so I’m going to have to speed things up a little.  Forgive me if my reviews become a little… impressionistic from here on out.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Real Emotional Trash
One of the problems I have with iTunes and iPod technology is that it’s kind of a pain in the ass to maintain sort order by last name where it should apply.  So I ended up manually moving all of the albums in my master 2008 playlist into alphabetical order, and I missed this one.

Anyway, it’s a Malkmus album.  As with all of his solo works, it’s instrumentally tight like the late-period Pavement albums and a little more complex musically.  He’s always good for some lyrical twists (“Cold Son”‘s infamous ‘Who was it that said, “The world is my oyster?”; I feel like a nympho trapped in a cloister”), and when he keeps things short and tuneful like on “Gardenia,” a ringer for recent Thin Lizzy-influenced Belle and Sebastian, it’s great.  But he seems to be testing the improvisational waters he last hit hard on Pavement’s Wowee Zowee.  This may have something to do with the new Janet Weiss-enhanced Jicks, but Malkmus isn’t exactly Neil Young or Richard Thompson.  I don’t need the solos and instrumental sections.  Give us the songs.

Sun Kil Moon – April
I do this Music Marathon every year  to force myself to come to conclusions about the music I listen to.  In my experience, the ability to do so, not the size of one’s music collection, number of concerts attended, or ability to play an instrument, is what separates music enthusiasts from casual music listeners.  As an enthusiast of something, you should have some aesthetic concerns.  Certainly not a strictly parameterized code (“if there’s a drum machine, it’s not for me!” or “only songs under 3 minutes, please!”), but the ability to think through your taste and present some arguments for or against something.

So it’s frustrating when I have to write about an album like April.  April’s inarguably similar to Sun Kil Moon’s last collection of original compositions, the hauntingly beautiful Ghosts of the Great Highway.  But despite the great similarity, April feels like a pretty big misstep.  Something’s wrong with the pacing, the song lengths… I’m not sure.  Basically something’s wrong with something.  It works great as background music, but Mark Kozelek can be and has been better than that (such as on Ghosts and on The Red House Painters’ Songs for a Blue Guitar).  April‘s high point, “Tonight in Bilbao,” adds to the mystery for me.  It’s a great song, but not fundamentally different than some of the others on here.  I have no idea why I like it, but feel pretty ambivalent about so much of April.  Even more perplexingly, it’s a 9 1/2 minute song near the end of a very long (unnecessary long – maybe that’s one issue) album that mostly doesn’t do much but just sit there for me.  I have no idea why this is the one that sticks.

So I’ll admit to failure.  I have no idea what to make of my gut reaction to April.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band With Choir – 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons
An organic, orchestral-traditional rock setup hybrid bashing out lengthy, dramatic compositions.  Sounds good, right?  It isn’t.  It’s a monotonous bore augmented with doubled (infrequently harmonized) so-serious vocals.  They get the dynamics right and practically nothing else.

These New Puritans – Beat Pyramid
SPEAKING OF BANDS BROUGHT DOWN MOSTLY BY ANNOYING VOCALS.  THESE NEW PURITANS ARE CLEARLY INDEBTED ENTIRELY TO LATE-70S POST-PUNK BANDS LIKE GANG OF FOURJOY DIVISION.  AND, ALL TOO CLEARLY, THE FALL.  IN FACT, LIKE MARK E. SMITH, JACK BARNETT INTONES EVERY PHRASE AS A MATTER OF SUCH GRAVE IMPORTANCE THAT HE SEEMS TO THINK IT WOULD DO IT A DISSERVICE TO JUST SING IT.  HERE ARE SOME SAMPLE LYRICS:

What’s your favourite number?
What does it mean?

Number 1 is the indvidual
Number 2 – duality
Number 3, … numerology is all shit
Number 4 is the number that runs through this music

DOES IT LOOK LIKE THEY REQUIRE SUCH GRAVITY?

Tokyo Police Club – Elephant Shell
Not much more than a fun guitar-pop album, but after Thee Silver Mt. Zion and These New Puritans, it was like manna.

Torche – Meanderthal
And things got even better from there, because Meanderthal is like getting tackled by a big load of awesome.  Ostensibly metal in that the guitar sound tends toward the thick and heavy, Torche has such a propensity toward hooks that they veer just as much toward guitar-centric late 90s rock like Far or a less angst-ridden Deftones.  In fact, if it weren’t for their apparent volume or propensity for touring with bands like Isis, Jesu, and The Sword, the metal label would almost seem sort of ludicrous – these guys could reasonably tour with the Foo Fighters, and it wouldn’t be that weird a fit.

But it’s that heavy sound that keeps things interesting – it’s envigorating to hear those massive guitars essay the perfect pop hooks of “Across the Shields,” and to hear what sounds a little like Sonic Youth’s “Mote” jacked-up a few notches in volume and tempo in “Healer.”  Even more to Torche’s credit, they keep the songs remarkably short and direct for such – few break three minutes.  Typically, I have enough room in my heart for maybe one or two metal (or “arguably metal” or “heavy music” or whatever we’re calling it) albums a year, so folks who might not normally be interested in this sort of thing, take note:  Meanderthal is worth your time.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science
And the upward swing continued with the reliable-as-usual TV on the Radio.  I’m not quite as hot on this album as others seem to be – I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of the band.  The opener, “Halfway Home” sports a general groove that promises a successor to their greatest moment, “Wolf Like Me,” but it feels hollow; single “Golden Age” is a little limp whenever it veers too far from its estimable chorus; and the album just generally goes for well-oiled consistency rather than staggeringly unusual stand-outs, quite a change from the last two albums, which were inconsistent, but had obvious stand-outs, like the driving “Wolf,” the stuttering groove-and-noise experiment “I Was A Lover,” and the a capella “Ambulance”.

But, even as it clings pretty closely to a distinctive style of electrified dance rock, Dear Science is hard to dispute as high quality work, and it expands admirably on the band’s prior work.  While “Stork and Owl” is in the mold of Return to Cookie Mountain‘s mid-tempo songs, it’s livened up with some plucked string parts and a lovely melody.  “Family Tree” may be one of the band’s prettiest songs to date, all lush orchestral padding, piano and harmony vocals.  The two up-tempo standouts, “Dancing Choose” and “Red Dress” drive forth with all instruments a-blazing – the horn section (a welcome addition to their sound) does battle with the sharp rhythmic turns we’ve come to expect from the band, and outdoes them at their own game, blurting and overwhelming as they go.  And, above it all, hover Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who have never sounded better than they do on this album – the falsettos and harmonies never threaten to go out of tune as they occasionally did in the past.

I realize I’m not doing much to rock the boat here.

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One Response

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  1. Wow, you have the two albums that round out my “best top 5 of 2008” on this list (Elbow, Mercury Rev, Raconteurs being top 3). I picked up the Malkmus disc with…I wouldn’t say low expectations, but I wasn’t that into his other solo works, and I was blown away. I think it’s awesome. I don’t mind the long drawn out jams (Elmo Delmo?? What???) and personally Baltimore has become a favorite of late. I felt that Torche’s previous release was a bit lacklaster (or their debut album was just that damn good), but all you have to do is play “Grenades” and right there is the selling point of how good this is. I agree with your review on that, pretty spot-on. Now finish this damn thing. Good day, sir.

    Tony

    January 28, 2009 at 7:25 pm


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