Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 – Part 2 (Bat for Lashes – Bon Iver)

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Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Despite being a relatively organic development from Bat for Lashes’ debut, Fur and Gold, there’s something risky about Two Suns‘ expansion of that album’s signature sound.  Fur and Gold was, in part, a great listen specifically because of its limitations.  It sounded like a creative and talented musician working with a relatively small set of supplies – Natasha Khan (aka Bat for Lashes) conjured up a dense sound with drum machines, hand claps, synths, and lots of overdubbing.

Despite upping the production values considerably, Two Suns is everything one could have hoped for as a sophomore effort.  Turns out Khan is just as good with a full arsenal at her disposal as she is at making the best of what she’s got.  The thicker production never overwhelms the songs, and she wisely keeps her voice up in the mix, and she turns up the neat percussion tricks (both electronic and otherwise) that pinned Fur and Gold‘s ethereal vocals and keys to something more primal.

And she also manages to overcome a new potential obstacle.  To be this melodramatic, to engage in this sort of free floating spirituality (“Glass” quotes the Song of Solomon, but there’s a lot of mythic flighty stuff on here that’s far less direct and possibly Khan-originated), to be this… serious.  I mean, there’s a nearly impossible-to-parse multi-song narrative going on with Khan’s imaginary alter-ego, Pearl.  It’s one thing to pull this sort of thing when the cracks are showing and you need to use some ingenuity to get your unique voice across.  But when you can just lay the production on thick with these tendencies toward the flowery, you can easily end up in New Age territory.  It’s a problem I nearly always have with Kate Bush, with whom Khan is often compared.  But Khan never falls prey to these urges (if she does fall prey to occasional Bush-style video corniness – see below).  Two Suns balances its ambition and outlandishness with a sort of modesty.

Also, you’ve gotta love an album that bounces between the extremes of invoking the Karate Kid in its lead single and managing to get the reclusive Scott Walker to add a weirdly Bela Lugosi-sounding vocal to the final track.  (Maybe I overstated Khan’s seriousness a little.)

Blakroc – self-titled
“Slide out your clothes and baby take off your shoes/
That coochie got me so confused that I don’t know what to do.”

As Raina pointed out as I repeatedly made her listen to “Coochie,” the hypnotically catchy opening track from Blakroc, “coochie” might be said to function as a synecdoche.  I suppose it kind of depends on whether the narrator (as voiced alternately by Ludicrous and a back-from-the-grave Old Dirty Bastard) is obsessing over the object of his affection directly or just her… coochie.

In any case, it’s a crude device that, along with the greasy musical backdrop provided by the Black Keys, provides a perfect introduction for this album, a collaboration between said Keys and a number of hip-hop folks that I won’t feign utter familiarity with, but whose names should ring a bell for pretty much anyone (RZA, Mos Def, etc.).  I also won’t feign utter familiarity with the blues lyrical form, but it seems to me that Blackroc doesn’t have to make a particularly strong case that blues led straight to hip-hop.  But through this blues-rock/hip-hop fusion, the Keys and their collaborators do so, just in case you missed it.  There’s nothing lyrical in “Coochie” that, conceptually speaking, wouldn’t be right at home in a blues song.

Nothing else on the album will stick in your head quite as much as “Coochie,” but “Dollaz & Sense” (with RZA and Pharoahe Monch) and “Why Can’t I Forget Him” (with Nicole Wray) are equally good at what they do.

Considering that I’m lukewarm on blues rock (including the last Black Keys album) and hopeless when it comes to hip hop, I’m enjoying this album quite a bit.  Not essential, but fun.

BLK JKS – After Robots
“The Mars Volta meets TV on the Radio,” said the advance reviews.  I can hear that, but possibly not as much as “Yeasayer meets King Crimson.”  Either way, these collisions don’t add up to as much as you probably want them to.  The band is clearly talented, and I hear they come across better live, but the result of all this technical skill is a somewhat stilted, undynamic album.

Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP
Most artists choose to highlight innovations in their sound on proper follow-up albums; EPs serve up the leftovers from the last full-length or preview songs on a soon-to-be-released album.  By this logic, Blood Bank should have been a shallow, b-sides-quality victory lap after the success that was For Emma, Forever Ago.  So why is Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, doing all of this stretching on a mere four-song EP?  Sure, the title track is just a more propulsive take on the wintry folk of For Emma (and it sounds even more propulsive in its live form) and “Beach Baby” doesn’t stray too far from that sound, but the Steve Reich-style minimalism of “Babys” seemingly comes from out-of-nowhere, and the excellent autotune a capella “Woods” is, perhaps, the last thing anyone could have reasonably expected [despite the single, notable and mysterious appearance of an autotune effect on For Emma‘s “The Wolves (Act I and III)”].

This mystery would ultimately be partially explained by Vernon’s other major release of the year, Volcano Choir’s Unmap, a collaboration with Collections of Colonies of Bees, an outfit with a more overtly experimental (and, yes, very minimalist-inspired) sound.  In fact, Blood Bank functions as a nice bridge between For Emma and Unmap, with Unmap even re-using “Woods” in a slightly different context.  It also suggests that Vernon isn’t content to continue mining the same territory, a legitimate worry given the specificity of For Emma‘s sound.  So those innovations on Blood Bank might end up sounding kind of slight, after all, upon the release of his next album.  But I’m getting ahead of myself… Blood Bank is that unusual EP that may prove just as essential as the artist’s full-length works.

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Written by Dave

December 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

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