Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Delorean - Ayrton Senna EP

Album Reviews
July 28, 2009

Ayrton Senna EP 

Man, that Wavves "meltdown" really bummed me out. Not because a rising lo-fi rocker acted stupidly-- who doesn't sometimes?-- but because I'd always imagined being on ecstasy in Barcelona would be a lot more fun. After all, some of the most rewarding music from the last couple of years basically promised as much. Or was Swedish imprint Sincerely Yours being insincere? How about U.S. labels True Panther and Underwater Peoples? From Oslo to Melbourne, from indie rockers to club kids, sunny electronic euphoria has been one of the late-2000s pop underground's richest musical nodes.

Just as that endless blissed-out summery vibe unites everyone from Panda Bear to Todd Terje, Barcelona electro-pop four-piece Delorean pull up at the intersection between several disparate and exciting movements. Start with their remixes: In the U.S., the bedroom pop of Glasser and disco-punk of Lemonade; in the UK, the NME-approved guitar rock of the Big Pink and Mystery Jets; and, right in Delorean's hometown, the sample-heavy tropical psych of El Guincho. They can be as airy and suave as Air France or Phoenix, but their unremitting beats are also plenty huge enough to convert fans of Cut Copy or MGMT. John Talabot, a Barcelona DJ who's released cosmic disco grooves for Munich label Permanent Vacation, lends a house remix to the group's current EP, Ayrton Senna.

The third release on Fool House, the new label from French indie-dance blog Fluo Kids, Ayrton Senna represents a similar kind of convergence. In the early 2000s, Delorean originally set out to be something like Jimmy Eat World crossed with Elliott Smith, keyboardist Unai Lazcano confided to The Pop Manifesto magazine last summer. By the time of their promising Transatlantic KK album a couple of years ago, Delorean had absorbed the synth-pop sleekness of New Order and the echoey guitar spikes of post-punk revivalists like !!! or the Rapture, with one transcendent moment: so-called "breakhop" finale "Apocalypse Ghetto Blast". On the Ayrton Senna EP, the group's burgeoning dance-pop savvy comes into bloom with three unstoppable summer bangers, the Talabot remix, and a digital-only bonus cut.

Despite their rock roots, Delorean do tracks, not songs. Singer/bassist Ekhi Lopetegi is a Ph.D. candidate with a background in philosophy, but Delorean use his Factory-ready yelp more as just another element to loop than as a vehicle for delivering lyrical content. "Seasun" is the best example of Delorean's layered approach to composition, methodically building 1990s piano-house keyboards, disembodied female vocals, Baltimore club-ready handclaps, and a ringing guitar line into the ultimate beach house (not Beach House). But "Deli", with its breakbeats and youthful enthusiasm, and "Moonson", all 90s-house liberation and anthem-rock yearning, are almost as thrilling. Talabot's "Kids & Drum" remix of "Seasun" could well hold up after even more listens than the original version, its hand-percussion samples reaching closer to the islands but its vast, clean lines stretching out toward space.

Prior to Ayrton Senna, arguably Delorean's most compelling release was its remix for oft-misunderstood electro-pop Serge Gainsbourgs the Teenagers. On last year's occasionally brilliant Reality Check, the French band's "Love No" is a hilarious, sleazy, and brutally scathing snipe at a nagging girlfriend who disapproves of the narrator's self-absorbed internet stonerdom. Delorean's bass-heavy "No Love" version-- like Studio's "Possible" rework of the Shout Out Louds' "Impossible", only more dramatic-- strips away all the negative lyrics, ditching a chorus of "I'm not in love" and instead repeating the big question: "Are you in love?" Well, that's a hell of a thing for a pop song to ask. The track promises dancefloor absolution, only to nag at the heart in a way the Teenagers' lame girlfriend never could.

Summer always ends too soon, and before long I'm sure beachy dance music will sound as cloying as rock fans considered the Beach Boys by the late 1960s. Like Wavves in Barcelona, Delorean recognize there's a dark side to their ecstatic vision, the aching truth that utopia-- literally, "no place"-- can never totally be fulfilled. As equally impressive bonus track "Big Dipper" puts it: "Babe, if you want to we could run away up into the sun/ But we would only fade from black to black." Delorean's similarities to other "sunny", "shimmering" new artists, ultimately, are far less important than their similarities to other practitioners of well-crafted and instantly gripping pop.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Boy Least Likely To - The Best B Sides Ever

Album Reviews
July 23, 2009

The Best B Sides Ever

"Our last album was meant to be our 'angry' album," the Boy Least Likely To announced in a recent tweet. For guys who introduced themselves to the world by asking us to be gentle with them, "angry" is a relative term. The story of the UK indie pop duo's wonderfully ramshackle 2005 debut, The Best Party Ever, is something like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah without the New York media glare or square-baiting obliqueness: from homemade 7"s to Oscar-night soda commercials, all in a few short years. 2009's The Law of the Playground adds depth, if little breadth, to their near-perfectly realized birthday-party aesthetic, while among the professionally hip, admitting your own insecurities remains as frowned upon as ever.

When your entire band concept is based around identifying with the sensitive but neurotic outcasts, your B-sides better damn well bring your A-game. The Best B Sides Ever doesn't disappoint. Originally bundled with Rough Trade Shop pre-orders for The Law of the Playground, and now available only at independent record stores, this slight but almost wholly satisfying disc is well worth any TBLLT fan's recession-pinched dollar. With two revealing covers and originals that at times rival their A-sides, singer/vocalist Jof Owen and multi-instrumentalist/composer Pete Hobbs keep their hearts precariously on their sleeve and their production colorfully ramshackle. Yup: acoustic guitar, banjo, synths, recorder, xylophone, stuffed-animals-on-parade drums, and whispery singing. Dudes who hate this shit and anything else that smacks of wimpiness, you can buy two and say it's for your sister. Deep down, you're one of us, too.

The covers aren't far from TBLLT's usual territory, but they're expertly enfolded in the group's deceptively childlike universe. Where Limp Bizkit made George Michael's "Faith" safe for the moshers, this version emphasizes the song's simple emotions and gold-plated pop craft. There's jauntiness to spare, sure, but little trace of irony. If this "Faith" turns chart-pop into twee-pop, then the disc's spare, faithful cover of the Field Mice's "Between Hello and Goodbye" could just as easily introduce Sarah Records to the charts. You don't need a tattered collection of 1980s NMEs to enjoy simple guitar, heartfelt vocals, twinkling percussion, and a beautifully aching romantic ballad, just ambiguous enough to reward listen after listen. (You do need the Field Mice, though, for your personal enjoyment.)

Elsewhere, the originals shed new light on an established persona, with results that range from the exceptional to the "mediocre for the Boy Least Likely To". With a bottom made out of rubber, a top-end made out of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails, "Oddballs" falls closer to the latter category, suggesting a name for the CD artwork's fine fuzzy wuzzies but breaking little new ground. Closer "Cuddle Me", meanwhile, at first seems like an almost too-literal encapsulation of the group's softer side. Within those watery sound effects and faraway rum-pum-pums, however, is an overwhelming vulnerability that should still be a treat for core indie-pop fans. "I hurt the things I love/ Because it stops them hurting me," Owen sings. If you can relate, you can spend a rainy afternoon daydreaming to this.

The Best B-Sides Ever is best when it's tinged with nostalgia. It's a kind of nostalgia that works both ways: Lost childhood becomes a metaphor for lost love on midtempo banjo-synth reminiscence "Every Grubby Little Memory", but "When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Boy Again" hopes to find the past in the future. While the guitar underneath the latter song's outer-space synth burbles comes perilously close to Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me", the vivid imagery of felt-tip pens and first-snow excitement easily wins out. Similarly, "Rock Upon a Porch With You"-- one of TBLLT's best-ever songs-- looks forward to growing not-so-dignified and old together with a loved one, puttering around "on the front steps of our sweet retirement home," remembering when they still had their own teeth. Don't make these guys get angry.

Friday, July 17, 2009

jj - jj n° 2

Album Reviews
July 17, 2009

jj n° 2 

0101, 0103, 0107, 0108, 0113, and 0115. Since all jj choose to show of themselves is their music, video, and occasional blood-spattered merch, then those Sincerely Yours catalogue numbers represent the sum total of what we know about them. Hell, we wouldn't even know jj were a "them" had the group's Gothenburg, Sweden-based, Tough Alliance-owned label not confirmed that. So... they're mysterious-- but not inscrutable: Despite a brief discography that's already geekily byzantine enough for anybody who ever bought into the legend of Factory Records, jj's full-length debut is as easy to enjoy as whatever the last CD was you brought home with a giant cannabis leaf on the cover. They're as naive as they are cynical-- or is it the other stupid way around?-- and they manage to be pretty, touching, funny, and motivating, in different ways, in all the right places, for nine songs lasting 28 minutes.

You don't need me to tell you for the 128th time (320th if you're at CD quality) how digital file distribution has spread sounds and ideas across the globe during the current decade, and jj have earned a place among the current wave of pop globalization, sharing both the island sounds and sticky-fingered irreverence of their labelmates the Tough Alliance, Air France, and the Honeydrips. Sure, jj still carry traces of iconic twee label Sarah Records, but they celebrate a broader definition of "pop". Sometimes, as on "Lollipop"-biting slo-mo raver "Ecstasy", jj do this by borrowing from global hip-hop culture. But they also participate. Never by straight-up rapping, but by expanding the reach of ambient music-- defined expansively, as Brian Eno once did, as music that "suggests, a place, a landscape, a soundworld which you inhabit"-- to include a whole new kind of swagger. "Of course there is people out to get me," a female vocalist sings on "My Hopes and Dreams" as hand percussion evokes the Avalanches' beach blowouts, hypnotic guitar recalls German Kosmiche Muzik, and gusts of winds whistle over high-noon Ennio Morricone strings.

Then again, on the same song, jj's singer just wants "someone to share my hopes and dreams with"-- a humbler goal to be sure, but jj excel just as much at strummy intimacy as they do at lavish blissouts. The lo-fi hooks on "Tell It to My Heart"-biting closer "Me & Dean" suggests TTA's aching teen-pop cover "Lucky", only done as an original this time. The pisstake-y giggles also make you wonder if you're hearing their mixtape outro.

When jj drift closer to early-1990s ambient-house, they still allow emotion to flood through the textures, and they never start repeating themselves. Opener "Things Will Never Be the Same Again" sets almost new-agey strings and Enya-esque sailing imagery to a bouncy Caribbean rhythm: "I close my eyes and remember/ A place in the sun where we used to live." For all the flickering synths and rainforest percussion of "Masterplan", we also get Top Gun guitar rocketry, faux-innocent-as-Disney sing-song, and that reporter guy from YouTube going, "I'm dyin' in this fucking country-ass fucked-up town." jj n° 2 may be easy on the ears, but it isn't wallpaper.

At their most ideal, ambient, hip-hop, punk, and the most crassly commercial pop all have in common an "anything goes" approach. Like any ideal, this usually gets fucked up pretty fast. "New Age" harnesses ambient's chill-out pleasantness to eco-politics and yuppie mysticism; old rappers start dissing younger rappers for not following in their footsteps or being more socially conscious; the punk and indie traditions become as idol-worshiping as the classic-rockers they sought to displace. jj obliterate that bullshit and get back to a place where Lil Wayne can be ambient, and Enya can show up on an album with a pot leaf on the cover.

Free mp3 "From Africa to Málaga", on some days my favorite track on the album, is almost as suited for a cruise-ship commercial as Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life". But it also faces Important Ideas like death and art with the clear-eyed precocity of an adolescent, riding in on trade winds with a message that could speak to middle-school cheerleaders and middle-aged soccer moms and middlebrow-loathing former punks alike: "The thought that you found/ Takes you to town/ Smashes your face/ Burns out your heart/ Then you go home and turn it into art." Pop's just fine, too, thanks.

Friday, July 10, 2009

VEGA - Well Known Pleasures EP

Album Reviews
July 10 2009

Well Known Pleasures

Alan Palomo was wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt in publicity photos before TMZ told us the King of Pop had left the building. Earlier, as frontman for Denton, Texas, electro-funkateers Ghosthustler, Palomo appealed to Nintendo Power Glove nostalgia in a memorable video by director Pete Ohs. Now based in Austin and leading VEGA, Palomo has moved closer to the "dream" side of the "dreamwave" descriptor coined for his acts, but he's still refashioning the past with the loving dedication of so many VHS-to-YouTube archivists.

Palomo may have his Power Glove in a few too many young-urban-retro-futuristic pies. Lefse Records has just announced a release date for the upcoming debut album by Neon Indian, Palomo's project with video artist Alicia Scardetta; at their best, the group's synth-dripping bedroom-pop hypnotism rivals some of Deerhunter-er Bradford Cox's Atlas Sound home recordings. Meanwhile, in Ghosthustler, Palomo made head-banging dance-pop with the twiddly synths of Chromeo and the aggressive distortion of then-ascendant French house labels Ed Banger and Kitsuné. VEGA's Joy Division-referencing debut EP, Well Known Pleasures-- originally slated for May release, and finally out digitally this month-- blasts that basic sound into more cosmic-disco-influenced frontiers, with pillowy electronic drifts and proggy solos.

Given the evolution in band logos, it's tempting to see VEGA as Sega to Ghosthustler's N.E.S.: same computing power, more of a "cult" appeal. Except Well Known Pleasures has a couple of tracks that seem a bit more immediately crowd-pleasing than anything I heard from Ghosthustler. Opener "No Reasons", with its chopped-up vocals and laser squiggles, is a fine piece of French-touched synth-pop that ought to win over some fans of Cut Copy. And the title track, described by Discobelle as a "smooth synthy pop track with a nice housey feeling," is basically just that, though the still-developing vocals and lyrics shouldn't keep Phoenix up nights.

In other places, despite taking a celestial name that most music fans probably associate with Suzanne ("Tom's Diner", "Luka") or Alan (Suicide), VEGA could almost score the credits of a vintage episode of PBS's "Nova". Slow, dramatic arpeggios float out from high-sustain synths on space-disco power ballad "Fondly", which ends with the type of noodling prog-isms you'd expect on a Lindstrøm epic. Closing synth lullaby "Other End" is over and forgotten in barely a minute and a half. But "Kyoto Gardens" is the only spot where VEGA really fall flat, stumbling over the same well-worn lyrical material as Little Boots' "New in Town" with a by now familiar formula of 80s electro, turn-of-the-millennium French house, and late-2000s spacey expansiveness.

All that adds up to two pretty good tracks and three somewhat satisfying but generally unremarkable ones, in less than 30 minutes. If you're as focused on VEGA's particular niche as they are, then Well Known Pleasures might well be a pleasure. That's still a long way from the all-embracing pop of the guy on the T-shirt. I'm more excited for Palomo's future-- retro or otherwise.

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