Friday, June 26, 2009

Various Artists - A Psychedelic Guide to Monsterism Island

Album Reviews
June 26, 2009

A Psychedelic Guide to Monsterism Island

Monsters, in general, are pretty hard to ignore. So it is with the visual creations of Welsh artist and toymaker Pete Fowler. Readers of this review will most likely know Fowler from the space aliens and other strange cartoonish beasties he has drawn for the covers of every Super Furry Animals album since 1997 except for one (2007's Hey Venus!, created by Japan's Keiichi Tanaami). Love 'em or hate 'em, Fowler's fanciful, bulbous images have helped SFA establish a visual aesthetic every bit as distinctive as their music, with a shared spirit of childlike mischief and spaced-out merriment.

A Psychedelic Guide to Monsterism Island-- the follow-up to 2005's impossibly scarce The Sounds of Monsterism Island, Vol. 1-- is basically a soundtrack to the lovingly detailed dreamworld inhabited by Fowler's characters. In film terms, though, it works more like a score than a hit-crammed blockbuster soundtrack, conjuring its woozy and whimsical mood out of 20 mostly instrumental tracks of folk, prog, cosmic disco, and hazy Moog rock. In other words, it's uncharacteristically easy to ignore, floating almost at the edge of perception. As with the like-minded psychedelia on London label Ghost Music, however, you shouldn't necessarily hold that against it. This can be transportative stuff.

Even if the compilation isn't always mind-blowing, psych nerds and obscurity-seekers should be able to find a few choice tracks to spin or sample. Super Furries frontman Gruff Rhys' "Wild Robots Power Up" sounds like its title, all chintzy electronic beats and hypnotic power-station drones. The Future Sound of London, appearing under their Amorphous Androgynous alias, go in for woolly psych-rock that's as bubbly as Fowler's creations. Inclusions from Luke Vibert, Beyond the Wizard Sleeve (aka Richard Norris), Circulus, and Belbury Poly range from sine-wave workouts to ominous grooves and even hobbit-ready lute-folk. The bright strums of Brazilian DJ/producer duo "Magic Morning" on "Monsters at Work" are quietly revelatory, inhabiting a universe not far from Quiet Village or recent nu-Balearic.

The disc's biggest flaw lies in apparently assuming we've already made the trip to Monsterism Island rather than gently guiding us there. The krautrock repetitions of Marc Shearer's "Magma on My Mind" or the Southern-fried electric guitar noodling of Wolf People's "Village Strollin'" are enjoyable enough on their own, but as compiled here, it all starts to blend together. Many listeners will find themselves drifting off-- losing themselves not in Monsterism Island, but in the late-2000s' many realtime distractions. The spoken-word interludes are a cute affectation, and they could take on more meaning if Fowler's talked-about children's TV show ever gets off the ground, but you won't find yourself wanting to listen to them very often.

Still, every time my head starts nodding, A Psychedelic Guide to Monsterism Island jolts me back to attentiveness with moments of Fowlerian wryness. Take the Advisory Circle's "Lair of the Grolfax", which sounds like "You Only Live Twice" covered as intergalactic lounge music by Air. "What a strange dream," a monster's deep, gruff voice intones on the closing track, summing up the whole collection. "It ebbs from my mind like treacle." Monster treacle?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl

Album Reviews
June 23, 2009

God Help the Girl 

"Girl singer needed for autumnal recording project," the ad in the paper said. "Autumnal," of course, being the Queen's-- and the critics'-- preferred English for, uh, "fall-like." You know that song where, when people talk about the fall, Jens Lekman thinks they're talking about Mark E. Smith? Stuart Murdoch probably thinks they're talking about the Garden of Eden.

After all, the main character in God Help the Girl-- a new album of songs from the Belle and Sebastian singer/songwriter's planned musical-film project-- is called Eve. She's voiced angelically by Catherine Ireton, cover girl for the Scottish septet's "White Collar Boy" single and one half of a sleepy acoustic pop duo called the Go Away Birds. Ireton is one of nine singers (incuding the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon) joining members of Belle and Sebastian for the recording, and her Irish-Zooey-Deschanel-next-door vocals have ended up gracing 10 of the set's 14 songs. But not until after an internet-wide sing-off. "The competition was me showing a startling lack of faith in what was right in front of me, but I had to see what was out there," Murdoch recently told London's Guardian.

From the humble school project that became 1996 debut Tigermilk to the professional pop majesty of The Life Pursuit a decade later, the Scottish pop savant's work has been almost one leap of faith after another. Murdoch lands on solid ground again with God Help the Girl, which has catchy, jangling girl-group ditties aplenty, a little theatrical flourish thanks to Belle and Sebastian trumpeter Mick Cooke's orchestral arrangements, and at least one typically Murdoch-esque character, Eve. The imagery is always vivid, even when the plot isn't. From what I can tell, Ireton's bookish ingenue gives herself to the Holy Trinity: sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. God love 'er.

Always one for evocative character sketches, Murdoch clearly relishes his role as demiurge of God Help the Girl's self-contained universe. First single "Come Monday Night" is a good preview, with the wispy lilt of early Camera Obscura and a way of lingering on "the gray of ordinariness" long enough to show how it's lined with silvery subtleties. Like, that restless first evening between a disappointing weekend and another drab workday. The way sleep leaves a face "crumpled and creased." And the full rundown of Eve obsessing over some guy she likes ("Please stop me there, I'm even boring myself!"). At times, Murdoch's realistically elaborate fiction points to its own phoniness. "Life could be musical comedy," suggests "Hiding Neath My Umbrella", a bittersweet Murdoch-Ireton duet over waltzing piano and swelling strings.

God Help the Girl opens with a delicate new version of The Life Pursuit centerpiece "Act of the Apostle II". Switched from "senior year" to "senior ward," and re-titled simply "Act of the Apostle", the song also drops its last verse-- making the whole thing more prologue-like-- and gains a bit of Andrews Sisters swing. For all the specifics about a sick narrator and fighting parents, "Act of the Apostle" is still essentially a pop kid's update of the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll": "My Damascan road's my transistor radio." Her life was saved by girl groups.

Or was it? The nuance-rich Murdoch is characteristically coy when it comes to certain details. He's mentioned musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar or the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory film as inspirations; my fellow 1980s babies may remember Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, where all those awesome Motown songs turned out to make real nice hymns if you did the ol' Christian rock trick and replaced "him" with "Him". So The Life Pursuit's "Funny Little Frog", sung here by Internet contest winner Brittany Stallings, might not work as a soul song, but just think: a soul song. About someone who is everywhere, but you don't think of in a physical way. Someone you might go and visit on rainy Sundays.

"She was into S&M and Bible studies," Murdoch once sang. Eve's first romantic experience is creepy, Murdoch offering to rub and scrub her during the ironically formal strings and piano of "Pretty Eve in the Tub". No wonder she winds up in the arms of Hannon's hammy rake on "Perfection as a Hipster", asking for haircare tips even as she wastes away from lack of nutrition. Asya, of Seattle teen keyboard-drums trio Smoosh, may have an even more girlish voice than Ireton's, but on "I Just Want Your Jeans", she's looking for boys to make her "go, 'Ouch!'"-- heck, she's "open to dark surprises." And somewhere in there I just skipped a couple of totally skippable instrumentals.

The last two songs are among the album's most inspired. "I'll Have to Dance With Cassie" suggests Eve has returned to the church of rock'n'roll; now that she knows her "dream boy" doesn't exist, she's shimmying with a girl friend like they're a pair of boxing kangaroos. On closing number "A Down and Dusky Blonde", having "fried" her head-- another double entendre?-- Eve joins an entire sisterhood of female singers. She hasn't been getting her apple a day, so a doctor counsels, "A woman does not live by the printed word/ Forgive yourself, and eat." How about it, Eve?

"I need a friend and I choose you," the final song continues, with a vow to "forget the kiss and feel." Hmm. God Help the Girl is a spirited expansion of some of Murdoch's best ideas, but until the film finishes shooting-- set to start next year-- we'll probably just have wild-ass guesses like mine as to the real story. "I feel like I have God for a pal because no one else would have me," Murdoch writes in an online journal entry. "Maybe that's the basis for a lot of religion. He's the invisible friend that it's OK to have as an adult." Tell you this much, He's in the details.

God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl

Video / Album Review
ABC News
June 23, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Little Boots - Hands

Album Reviews
June 18, 2009


"Pop" is easy to write and even easier to say, but it's not so easy to pull off successfully. Victoria "Little Boots" Hesketh has been outspoken in embracing the term. "A pop song is just this three-and-a-half-minute nugget, but it can be so powerful," the synth-toting songstress from Blackpool, England, told Carson Daly the night of her first L.A. show. "My problem with a lot of mainstream pop artists-- I love the songs, and I think they're great songs a lot of the time, but they don't have enough character for me."

A musician since childhood, Hesketh once got rejected in the opening rounds of the UK's "Pop Idol". She went on to play in a jazz trio, a big band, and, by 2005, a punk-charged synth group called Dead Disco. That's around when L.A. session mainstay Greg Kurstin (one half of jazzy electropop duo the Bird and the Bee; previously of 1990s one-hit wonders Geggy Tah) started prodding Hesketh to focus on writing pop songs. From there, it's almost too good to be true: One minute she's covering Human League on YouTube in her pajamas, the next she's partying with Kanye West and Brandon Flowers. If you're a former "TRL" host, that's a refreshing do-it-yourself tale. If you're a more skeptical sort, you check the price tag of the Japanese electronic instrument she has helped publicize, and you wonder.

Little Boots' debut album, then, is a mainstream pop effort with an indie-friendly narrative. It's a savvy approach, effectively bridging the gap between poptimism and alt snobbery. One three-and-a-half-minute nugget comes after another, with the directness of Madonna and the fashion sense, too: There's blog-house distortion, Italo-disco sweep, and the dayglo tranceyness of recent electronic-based pop-rap hits. The hooks, however, tend to be more Hard Candy than The Immaculate Collection. I really like one song, and I think they're decent enough songs a lot of the time, but all too often Hands is as lacking in character as the music Hesketh criticizes.

Hands' most distinguishing characteristic is an unusual level of meta-pop self-awareness. Kind of clever the first time: "Stuck on Repeat", produced by Hot Chip's Joe Goddard and co-written with Goddard and Kurstin, still throbs like a Kylie Minogue crush. But then there's latest single "New in Town", a glammy going-out song that also doubles as an artist introduction-- she wants to take us out tonight, and she wants to make us feel all right, but staying in sounds good, too. On "Remedy", producer/co-writer RedOne (Akon, Lady Gaga) lends generic club-rap swagger but can't convince that this "music is the cure"; bittersweet soft-rocker "Tune Into My Heart", co-written with accomplished Belgian producer/songwriter Pascal Gabriel (New Order's "Regret", Dido), asks what's the frequency and never quite finds its signal.

Even the songs that aren't commenting on themselves lyrically sound like they're commenting on themselves musically. Despite radio-ready production and commercial hooks that tell us we're hearing pop, it can take some hours of intense listening before most of these tunes ever stick in the head, and there's little to no emotional investment. "Symmetry" has the Human League's Phil Oakey, and "Mathematics" has a metaphor inspired by Sylvia Plath's "Love Is a Parallax", but their by-the-numbers synth-pop is more science than art. "I'm like a moth into the flame," Hesketh coos on "Hearts Collide", a sultry Minogue-vogue spacewalk. We all have someone we like with trite lyrics or an average voice, but what makes the best pop songs successful is that they have some quality uniquely their own, and that's mostly absent here.

Paradoxically, Hands works best as pop when Hesketh taps indie-famous collaborators. The second-best song is also the second single, "Meddle", where the production and songwriting team from "Stuck on Repeat" turn toward rock's angst and propulsion. Simian Mobile Disco's Jas Shaw lends his skills to a pair of solid if lyrically dismal tracks: the spacious "Click" ("I thought you were a condition/ That no one else could treat") and the pattering "Ghosts", which has a deftly pirouetting melody that helps make it one of the only songs here that doesn't sound like Hesketh is trying to be someone else, someone more mundane.

A few years ago, I wrote a column suggesting that the ideal pop star of today is someone like Robyn: polished chart-pop sound, still writes her own songs. Then along came Lily Allen. Now even in country, a genre not traditionally given to valuing singer/songwriters, you find people praising Taylor Swift because she writes her own songs and records for an "indie" label. So Little Boots, with her unabashed love of pop and her honest-to-goodness instrumental ability-- check the piano-driven hidden track-- has the right package for the current moment, and if Lady Gaga and La Roux can click with the public, maybe she will, too. Then again, calling yourself pop isn't guaranteed to bring you popularity. Songs don't get stuck on repeat unless people can't get them out of their heads.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Client - Command

Album Reviews
June 16, 2009


Great poetry, it's been said, contains more information than political speeches. Because in a really creative poem, you never know what's coming next. So like, a film by Orson Welles contains more information than other films of its day, because nobody else would shoot their scenes in exactly the same way. Sad to say, Client are not their generation's chilly UK electro-pop version of Orson Welles.

In fact, Client have basically defined themselves by withholding information-- from their anti-image image to their repetive, generic, but nonetheless well-constructed and hooky music. Core duo Kate Holmes and Sarah Blackwood originally took on the code names Client A and Client B because they didn't want to be known as, respectively, the wife of former Creation Records chief Alan McGee and the former singer for 1990s British act Dubstar. That's understandable. On fourth album Command, Client race toward goth night at your local disco, with Killing Joke's Youth (fresh off a collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney) and the Sneaker Pimps' Joe Wilson splitting production duties. Look at the cover art, though: The uniform has changed, but Client are still proudly faceless.

That's understandable, too-- not for nothing did Client cover Adam and the Ants' cynical post-punk side "Zerox" on 2007's slightly more rocking Heartland-- but their lack of a discrete identity also makes for pretty forgettable albums. Vague lyrics continue to be a sticking point, and it doesn't help that they repeat what few lyrics they have over and over again. Why, the screeching "Satisfaction" and faster, more dancefloor-ready "Blackheart" even use their first verses twice. That the lyrics consist of phrases like "junkie love, junkie love", on opener "Your Love Is Like Petrol", or "fucked-up music sounds so fresh", on next track "Can You Feel"-- and that they're often spoken unexpressively rather than sung-- probably won't attract many new fans.

Whatever makes Client so lacking in personality isn't just the lyrics, however. When they cover Curtis Mayfield's "Make Me Believe in You", the words are still fairly rote-- "You are my temptation/ Show me inspiration"-- but the frosty Eurodisco rendition doesn't give you much reason to seek this one out instead of Amerie's faithful 2007 cover, let alone Patti Jo's Tom Moulton-remixed 1973 soul jam. (Is it better than Duffy's awfully similar neo-soul hit "Mercy", though? Maybe.) Still, the problem can't be the craftsmanship, which is consistently excellent, whether in the glam stomp of "Son of a Gun" or woozy dream-pop of "In My Mind". Chugging, midtempo tracks like "Don't Run Away" and "Ghosts", arguably the catchiest songs here, recall the slick mid-1990s electro-rock of Butch Vig's Garbage, for better and worse.

Biggest bummer of all: The timing was right for a late-career breakthrough. Client were never as glamorous as Goldfrapp, never as shrill and willing to experiment as Adult., never as shoegaze-indebted and affecting as Ladytron. But when it comes to contemporary peers like Little Boots and La Roux, Command's minimalist songwriting and high-end production don't put them far behind. It's just that, once again, Client's fondness for anonymity threatens to keep them that way. If I'm repeating past reviews here, well, does this look like great poetry?

Monday, June 15, 2009

So Cow - So Cow

Album Reviews
June 15, 2009

So Cow

Nine times outta 10, "noise pop" is a misnomer. Guitars sound like crap? No discernible emotional content? Pass the bowl, maan-- that's not music for a pop audience, that's a self-esteem boost for guys who like to hit on tortured girls with Cramps tattoos in record shops. I mean, sure: Plenty of bands, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, really do make noise-drenched pop music. It's just that you can find plenty more bands who make noise-drenched art music, records that reaffirm their buyers' superiority over the unsophisticated rabble (often, without actually being superior). Now, don't get me wrong-- I like a lotta that stuff, too!-- but if you think your average lo-fi/shitgaze scenesters have anything to say to the broader 21st Century Breakdown-buying, "American Idol"-watching public, you've been living in Greenpoint too long. And you should sign me to your label.

"I aim to sum up something so neatly that my friend Muiris will go, 'Ah, nicely said,'" So Cow main man Brian Kelly told the blog Hi-Fi Popcorn last year. "I like the idea of someone listening and going, 'Ah, that's what I thought!" If you've ever been young and unlucky in love, the Irish multi-instrumentalist has a song that will strike exactly that kind of emotional chord. Like Television Personalities or the Clean at their most engaging, Kelly plays rickety guitar-pop that sounds homemade without feeling insular. So Cow compiles the best of Kelly's singles and self-released CDs so far, remastered by underground rock luminary Bob Weston. Sing-along hooks and scruffy charm abound.

First, though, you'll have to tear yourself away from the best few songs. "Shackleton" would be equally perfect for Death Cab fans' mixtapes, Belle and Sebastian fans' weddings, and closing-credit sequences for Chuck Palahniuk film adapations; here Kelly updates the ol' love-songs-about-love-songs trope (cf. the Divine Comedy's "Perfect Lovesong", the Lucksmiths' "Sunlight in a Jar", Elton John's "Your Song") as near-perfectly imperfect organ-and-drum-machine swoon-pop: "One day I'll write the song you require/ Until then, la la la." He turns out to be similarly adept at extended adolescence on the off-kilter "Halcyon Days", at droney bitching about his life's lack of resemblance to Hollywood romance on "Casablanca", and at tender non sequiturs on Pinkerton-style acoustic finale "To-Do List" ("a one, a two, a one to-do list..."). You might not know Korean pop star Moon Geun Young, but if you can't relate to the eponymous So Cow song's red-lining tale of an awkward breakup beneath a smiling billboard, well-- such sweet sorrow, I guess.

Kelly already has put out two full-length So Cow CDs himself, plus an EP and the occasional single, so it's hard to fault him for wanting to overload his proper debut LP. But for all the easy wit and superabundance of ideas bursting from doomed-love punk-popper "Greetings" or wobbly-synth duel "So Cow vs. the Future", So Cow would be a more cohesive listen without its few underwhelming moments-- breakup thrasher "Normalcy", maybe, or breakdown ramble "Exclamation Mark". And I know Kelly recorded a lot of these songs while living in South Korea, but his lyrics are so sharp that the couple of Korean-language tracks just don't put So Cow's best foot-- hoof? (sorry!)-- forward. Then again, the dreamier "Ping Pong Rock", which drops more band names than this review without ever losing sight of a bright melody, shows one way Kelly could get more textural without going all abstract.

Listen, nobody understands better than me the impulse to wanna set yourself apart from people who can't see the greatness of, say, Deerhoof or Kirsty MacColl, both of whom So Cow has covered. You know the old punk single "Whole Wide World" by Wreckless Eric? Whether you first heard it through John Peel or from that one Will Ferrell movie, So Cow might give you the same type of feeling-- and if you hate this music, at least you won't have to put up with being told you "don't get it." That's the art of pop.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Curious Mystery - Rotting Slowly

Album Reviews
June 12, 2009

Rotting Slowly

Oh man, I could really go for some Tex-Mex right about now. New York's mostly meh burrito situation and my still eating 'em all the time anyway aside, when you're a dutiful digital audio consumer, sometimes you've gotta run for the border. Round these parts that usually means Calexico, a Tejano-tinged indie rock group as picturesquely perfect for their fine Tucson, Ariz., as a Saguaro cactus in rosy sunset silhouette. But you can go back as far as you want: If you believe Lester Bangs, Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" begat every punk rock song ever. If you believe fellow critic Chuck Eddy, Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" begat every disco song ever. And if you believe rock, punk, disco, all that stuff exists to be contrary, to take people's expectations and give 'em a good poke in the eyeball-- to the point where it's almost not contrary to be contrary anymore-- then you shouldn't even be surprised. Of course, rock would thrive in the desert. Whadda punk.

The Curious Mystery aren't from the desert. They're from Seattle. Doesn't matter. As soon as Shana Cleveland starts in with that smoky drawl-- "If I go blind/ Hangin' out by a riverside/ Just stay with me"-- we're at the base of a rusty gorge with Cat Power on a Mazzy Star-ry night. (By the time Cleveland breaks off for an enigmatic chuckle, 10 tracks in, you're wondering whether she's really a safe person to stay with alone by a riverside on a night such as this.) Nicolas Gonzalez is a javelina-charmer on electric guitar and homemade Theremin. Add drummer Faustine B. Hudson and bass player Bradford Button, and you've got a four-piece doing unhurried psych-blues, autoharp ghost songs, and Area 51 garage-Americana, with plenty of that old frontier promise. Their debut LP might not be exactly what Kurdt Cobain used to expect from K Records-- you noticed the title's Rotting Slowly, right?-- but the Curious Mystery are well within the spirit of former Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek's unsentimental smolder. And when you get right down to it, who's the bigger outlaw: Calvin Johnson, or some schmo who can't drive just 55? Why is Sammy Hagar the one with his own brand of tequila?

Nobody ever tells the Grand Canyon to get to the damn point, and at times the Curious Mystery's slow-burning expansiveness helps set a nice acid-Western mood. Instrumentals undergo shifts both rhythmic and dynamic, showcasing Gonzalez's stormy leads, while even at Rotting Slowly's most lyrical, on vivid and forceful standout "Black Sand" or the tenderly wasted "Go Forth and Gather", the Curious Mystery are rarely far from Beach House's druggy languour. "You are the type that only moves slowly/ And I am the same," Cleveland murmurs on spindly epic "Outta California". When she isn't singing, though, these cowboy-junkie dirges tend to drift. And watch out for occasional clumsy overseriousness-- on the Gonzalez-sung "Strong Swimmers", with its Sonic Youth dissonance, two people are unlike everybody else in that they can swim, except it turns out they actually can't swim (see, a metaphor can bloom in the desert!). The Curious Mystery have the Southwestern scenery down pretty well. Now they just need to improve the accomodations for us city slickers. A guy can't live on Cabo Wabo alone. ...Or can I?

Various Artists - Kitsuné Maison 7: The Lucky One

Album Reviews
June 12, 2009

Kitsuné Maison 7: The Lucky One 

So Kitsuné has an iPhone app now. Some of the groups from previous Kitsuné Maison compilations have started playing live together under the tagline "Kitsuné En Vrai!" ("Kitsuné for Real!"). The influential French dance imprint has even taken to holding promotional contests: Your face could be on the next comp's crazy cover collage! As trend pieces about blogs give way to trend pieces about Twitter, the ragtag style of electronic music most memorably-- if least descriptively-- lumped together as "blog house" has become, almost literally, yesterday's news.

And Kitsuné, after seven of these things, has long since lost its element of surprise. That's sort of what happens when you help launch the careers of Bloc Party, Hot Chip, Simian Mobile Disco, Klaxons, Crystal Castles, and basically every fashionably trashy electro-punk act that isn't Justice. This is good, of course, but ascendancy can breed complacency. One way to look at last year's Kitsuné Maison 6: The Melodic One is as a victim of the series' success, largely playing it safe with glossed-up but less-great takes on the kind of banging rock-meets-dance hybrids these guys have been championing since the first half of the decade. Even so, there were still left turns (a ballad!) and blogworthy newcomers (Heartsrevolution, Ted & Francis).

Kitsuné Maison 7 is a slight but welcome improvement over its predecessor. Bright guitar pop and mellow psych-outs now go with the usual French Touch-ed electro-house thumps. The type of slow and spaced-out disco lately repopularized by Lindstrøm, Studio, and others fields its biggest Kitsuné Maison representation yet. Sure, with 19 tracks (plus a 20-second "encore" break), the album still sometimes errs toward the generically danceable instead of the truly memorable. But the best cuts easily reconfirm the label's ear for promising talent.

Not that you need Kitsuné to tell you Phoenix are fucking awesome, but a remix by L.A. duo Classixx gives Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix's "Lisztomania" a gorgeously pillowy synth-disco framework, sort of like Simian Mobile Disco's "I Believe" or Friendly Fires' "Paris (Aeroplane Remix)". Also graceful is Prins Thomas' "Sneaky Edit" of London folktronica singer/songwriter James Yuill's "This Sweet Love", with its feathery acoustic guitar and house beats suggesting a cosmic disco re-edit of José González-- or Matthew Sweet. Northern Ireland's Two Door Cinema Club open the comp with breezy pop, like a bubblegum Phoenix with Vampire Weekend on chirruping lead guitar. To give you an idea how mellow this disc can be: L.A.'s Heartsrevolution, last seen making croaky basement electro-punk the Crystal Castles way, are back this time with a woozy music-box commencement lullaby (and a neat The Little Prince-inspired video).

Other choice selections include more predictable Kitsuné jams. New York blog darlings the Golden Filter stick to their Glass Candy-glazed nu-disco on "Favorite Things", which happy-birthday-Mr.-Presidents its target demo's turn-ons: "Paris, London, sweet girls, cute boys, vodka, whiskey, cameras, pictures." Nobody on listens to Coltrane? And new act Maybb, widely rumored to be an alias for big-time Eurohouse DJ/producer Benny Benassi, hits all the right Daft Punk buttons with "Touring in NY (Short Tour Edit)". Elsewhere, Manchester's Delphic flash promise on a euphoric house remix of their single "Counterpoint", all blinking synths and Underworld-echoing vocals.

Even the inessential tracks are still likely to sound good out, though they're less fun around the house. Chew Lips' "Solo" has the misfortune of sounding like Yeah Yeah Yeahs gone electro-pop in a year when Yeah Yeah Yeahs kind of went electro-pop. And you can tell the one with former Le Tigre members (Men's "Make It Reverse") by the jagged post-punk bass lines, the defiant vocals. French group Chateau Marmont's "Beagle" is space disco in the original 1980s sense, with vocoders and galloping Moroder synths; also not far from the unremembered 80s is Chromeo-plated electro-funk from Beni and "Blue Monday" gloom-marching from La Roux. Other tracks, like We Have Band's "Time After Time", sound like they're trying to do too much: Eastern European spoken-word? "We'll be alone forever," a voice repeats on Crystal Fighters' "Xtatic Truth (Xtra Loud Mix)". Nah, just until Kitsuné starts following us all on Twitter.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Miike Snow - Miike Snow

Album Reviews
June 11, 2009

Miike Snow

Even the most dependable producers tend to stumble when they step out from behind the curtain. Timbaland's Shock Value sold more than a milli, nothing to sneeze Creatine at, but its distillation of the hip-hop heavyweight's sci-fi primitivism still sounds more like a victory lap than an actual victory. Swizz Beatz had at least one solid artist album in him, but he's no rapper, as the wait for a follow-up underscores. And N.E.R.D.? Um, you've heard those guys' other stuff, right? Pop's biggest producer-to-artist success stories, such as Kanye West, have become exceptions thanks in part to their outsize personalities.

That's where Miike Snow start to fall short. And not just because they briefly cloaked themselves in the whole "ooh we're anonymous, who could we be?" promotional trend that's been sweeping the blogs. True, you expect good things from Swedish producers Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, who as Bloodshy & Avant produced Britney Spear's indie-kid-converting 2004 single "Toxic", among other tracks for the likes of Spears, Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Rachel Stevens, and Sugababes. But Scandinavia's recent indie-pop leadership notwithstanding, "Swedish producers" doesn't exactly scream "would be interesting to hear by themselves at album-length." Enter Downtown Recordings production regular Andrew Wyatt, of anthemic New York electro-rockers Fires of Rome (and previously of Black Beetle, with Jeff Buckley cohorts Joan Wasser and Michael Tighe).

Miike Snow is about as exciting as all those biographical details would indicate. The debut album by these producers-turned-trio comes after blog-bait remixes galore, including a nice enough Postal Service-ish Vampire Weekend makeover, but there's little of those fine young Columbians' infectious exuberance here. Biggest surprise? Miike Snow largely trade in brash pop immediacy for low-key, piano-laden melancholy. Decent bummer of a first single "Burial", with its fluttery synths, tricky rhythms, and a couple of those vaguely exotic yelps currently de riguer in commercials for lime-flavored beer, is sort of like crying your eyes out to Phil Collins on a beach. Also like that, it's a bit nonsensical: "This empathy is overrated/ Like a snapshot when you've lost the game." Stop overrating those snapshots, people! The sunny West Coast harmonies of "Faker" and the oceanic calmness of "Sans Soleil" similarly suffice without quite standing out.

Miike Snow are better when they're more starlet-ready, though even then they could use an actual starlet. The thickly textured buzz-strut of "Plastic Jungle" is pretty close to Britney's "Womanizer", but instead of femme-bot purrs there's a whispery guy who wants to "get slain." Whether in the kiddie-pop lilt of opener "Animal", the Field-minding hypnotism of "In Search Of", or the glimmering electro-house thump of "Silvia" and the yearning "A Horse Is Not a Home" (no, not even in this real-estate market), the disc is rarely less than professional-grade. Faint praise, sigh.

So Miike Snow aren't half as potentially infuriating as a Kanye or a Timbaland, but they aren't half as lovable, either. More promisingly, the album's "Black & Blue" splits the difference between Prince and piano-pop, only to underwhelm as a whole. The best track, the one with the Dirty Projectors-like flickering guitars, perfect for summer driving mixes: "Song for No One". Hello, is it me you're looking for?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Axa exit sparks questions for others

News Article
Financial Times
June 7, 2009

Financial Times

Axa Investment Managers is the most recent player to leave the exchange traded funds business, but industry experts say it probably will not be the last.

Axa IM’s withdrawal from EasyETF, its joint venture with BNP Paribas Asset Management, announced last month, comes as others are looking to increase their share of the ETF market. The reasoning behind Axa IM’s decision, however, may have a familiar ring for some existing ETF shops.

Elénore Lesueur at the firm says: “We are convinced our ability to create value for clients will be maximised by refocusing on our active management activities. Maintaining a presence in the trackers market does not correspond to our strategic priorities and would not have constituted a good allocation of our resources.”

EasyETF is the fifth biggest ETF provider in Europe, ranked by assets. As at April 30, it had $151.4bn (£93bn, €107bn) under management in 58 funds, for a 3 per cent market share, according to Barclays Global Investors.

“The impression I got was that [Axa] wanted to be a niche player [in the ETF market] concentrating on the French market and offering products on alternative markets,” says one ETF industry executive speaking on condition of anonymity. “It looks like they’ve taken the business as far as they can and it will be interesting to see the approach taken by BNP – stay niche or become broad market.”

For its part, BNPP AM is “committed” to the ETF arena, says Guillaume Dolisi, head of the EasyETF platform for BNP Paribas.

“It does not really change the overall strategy,” Mr Dolisi says of the Axa IM withdrawal. Rather than decide between niche and broad market products, EasyETF does both, according to Mr Dolisi. It provides the big benchmarks to clients but was also the first to provide access to the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, he says. Future plans include products covering agribusiness, waste management and water.

Axa IM’s decision to pull out of the ETF business was not unique, points out Scott Burns, director of ETF analysis at Morningstar. Northern Trust also recently abandoned ETFs in the US to focus on its core strengths.

“A lot of people who don’t really have a robust trading platform or index business, people who aren’t really committed to ETFs, have found that this is a nice business, but it is a bit of a distraction,” Mr Burns says. “There’s a real first-mover advantage.”

Some question how many firms have profitable ETF operations, particularly after the financial crisis.

“Keep in mind that not only are long-term assets still down 30 to 40 per cent from their highs, there are some doubts about the viability of profits from securities lending,” says Ben Poor, director at Cerulli Associates. “After Lehman, there is more concern about counterparty risk, and ethical considerations – particularly for pension funds, but also for fund houses.”

Mr Poor adds that the best buyers for iShares, BGI’s ETF business which is currently up for sale, or any other ETF operation need to have “quality distribution and existing ETF scale”. Management fees for passive products are lower than on the active side, so scale is key. Strategic Insight global consulting head Daniel Enskat divides ETF providers into three groups.

First are traditional ETF providers, index-orientated companies that have a brand based around ETFs. Second, he points to firms such as Pimco, active managers that see a strategic opportunity to use ETFs to enhance their mutual fund businesses. The third group, Mr Enskat says, consists of “companies that have jumped on the bandwagon in the last couple of years, especially in Europe, and are rethinking it now”.

He adds: “Axa is interesting because it’s probably one of the first European firms to say: ‘We looked at this, we did this, we actually established a brand, but we don’t think this is part of who we are at our core’.

“It’s probably a first mover in that direction to withdraw, and that might spur some questions for other companies in Europe as well.”

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