Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Múm - Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know

Album Reviews
September 29, 2009

Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know 

Múm's fifth album starts off kind of like Tim Hardin's 1966 hit for Bobby Darin, "If I Were a Carpenter". Except instead of imagining themselves as Joe the Woodworker (and you as a lady), the Icelandic collective are singing about-- well, the title's "If I Were a Fish". It'd almost definitely be making a geyser out of a lyrical plankton-fart to observe that the world's most famous carpenter also happened to be the world's most famous recruiter of fishermen. Shit, just a few lines later, Múm are a bumblebee, drowning in "your soggy eyeballs," which, hmm.

But uhh, few bands outside 1980s bedsit-indie circles would be better suited to rep the Beatitudes' "blessed are the meek" rap than Múm. That's as true as ever on Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know. Already one transitional LP (2007's Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy) removed from singer Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir's departure to go make backwards recordings with Avey Tare, Múm remain pretty obsessed with the kind of childlike innocence that drove people nuts about Valtýsdóttir's impish persona, let alone her voice. Artists like Japan's Lullatone and Tenniscoats have used similar naïve-folk ramshackle wispiness toward their own ambitious, endearing ends, tickling and prodding cuteness toward its avant-garde extremes.

Múm's latest can be childish, but it isn't cute, and despite some (relatively) inventive arrangements, this time it's a bit of a slog on a purely musical level. Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know still melds electronic and organic elements, as the band have been doing since their early-millennium breakthrough, cramming in male-female harmonies, lo-fi percussion, rhapsodically blue strings, prepared piano, hammered dulcimer, marimbas, ukuleles, and even a parakeet alongside guitars and synths. Billed as a response to the recent unrest in Múm's native country, it's an entirely peaceful, largely melancholy, and clearly well-meaning record. Unfortunately, it's also filled with bewildering decision after bewildering decision.

With arguably one exception, the most enjoyable aspect of the album is Múm's ongoing apprecation for sonic detail, though that can get tiresome fast when such details are attached to cringeworthy songs. You might hear a music box being wound up, or an acoustic guitar string buzzing imperfectly, or what seems to be a didgeridoo. "The Smell of Today Is Sweet Like the Breastmilk in the Wind" uses not only chintzy electronics and vaguely disco-punk percussion, but also sloping strings, guitars with the trebly chime of the Afropop-influenced stuff that has been popular lately, and, oh yeah, Belle and Sebastian-style harmonies that become a liability when most of those instruments drop out-- no Stuart Murdoch literary mien here. Busy hi-hats and rough-hewn handclaps give "Kay-Ray-Kú-Kú-Kó-Kex" a retro-soul tone... if the Residents were a retro-soul band.

The previously mentioned exception is "Húllabbalabbalúú". It's the poppiest song on the album-- not because it mimics existing styles or flashes fashionable r&b influences, but because it brings together plenty of Múm's eccentricities in the service of a triumphant feeling. It helps that the singers get to chant syllables that sound like nonsense to American ears, adding, perhaps tellingly: "In these words we drown." In any event, the song has some of the album's most successful vocals, horn fanfares, and a structure that ebbs and flows.

Two minor problems: The songs are generally slow, samey, and sleep-inducing, and the lyrics, any language differences notwithstanding, are hard to take seriously, even for a guy who raved about I'm From Barcelona. "If you must cry with grief/ Blow your nose right on my sleeve," elfin voices urge on "Blow Your Nose", backed only by slow-motion strings and marimba. "A River Don't Stop to Breathe" has lovely string and percussion parts, with a poignantly rising refrain, but it's a dragging, preachy song overall, less than the sum. Tranquil finale "Ladies of the New Century" spreads out its plodding piano plinks as far as they can go, but offers little to retain all but the most devoted fans' attention between them.

It's probably another one of those coincidences, but Pitchfork's Mark Richardson once heard echoes of "Heart and Soul" in a Múm song, adding, "I'm not suggesting they stole the melody-- I doubt the band has even heard it." In addition to the "If I Were a Carpenter" similarity, there's a line on quasi-title track "Sing Along" that recalls "You Are My Sunshine", in melody and lyrics: "You'll never know," Múm sing, and I want them to add, "...dear", you know? It's enough to make me half-wonder if the album has more of these little references, like a band singing along to songs they don't know-- kind of like the Dirty Projectors' Rise Above, only with half-remembered tunes from childhood instead of a Black Flag album. "You are so beautiful to us," Múm sing more than once, coming on a little strong. "We want to keep you as our pets." Ha?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Washed Out - Life of Leisure EP

Album Reviews
September 16, 2009

Life of Leisure EP 

Did our parents give us too much self-esteem? Not that long ago, message boarders could diss and dismiss boring new bands (insert your least favorite post-punk revivalists here) for sounding like "a copy of a copy of a copy." Fast forward just a few years, and that's exactly what some of the most exciting new bands sound like.

Pastiche and intertextuality are as ancient as postmodernism-- not to mention disco, hip-hop, and the remix-- but childhood memories, in particular, are present now like never before. Today's blockbuster movies are based on yesterday's beloved toys; today's wars and political battles are sequels, too. It isn't surprising that music would reflect the zeitgeist. What's striking is how an international cohort of rising artists has successfully translated this culture of watery VCR transfers and Fisher-Price cassette rips into 1980s-inspired psychedelic music.

Names like Ducktails, Reading Rainbow, VEGA, Pocahaunted, and, especially, Memory Tapes tell you a lot about where these disparate reminiscers are coming from. Arguably, more than genre tags like "glo-fi" or The Wire critic David Keenan's "hypnagogic pop," but those labels can be useful, too. Washed Out, the solo project of Georgia (via South Carolina) multi-instrumentalist Ernest Greene, fits in almost too well with the balmy lo-fi synth atmospherics of peers like Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, Small Black, the higher-fi jj, or the darker, heavier SALEM, as well as the more guitar-based Real Estate, Best Coast, and Pearl Harbour. Washed Out's debut Life of Leisure EP, out digitally now and on 12" early next month (another release, the cassette-only High Times, arrived September 15), isn't at the top of its class, but Greene so far is one of this fledgling aesthetic's most gifted students.

Focusing on romantic nostalgia and homespun textures, Life of Leisure does with 80s soft rock and synth-pop what Glass Candy and Chromatics did with Italo disco a couple of years ago, only Washed Out evokes summer afternoons indoors rather than the Italians Do It Better crew's early-a.m. urban stalking. Out-of-sync PBS-theme synths and videogame lasers meet funky horn breaks on opener "Get Up", as Greene's slurry vocals suggest deep pain. A sampled sax sighs mournfully behind a chopped-up voice, Cut Copy-pasteable beats, and some more indistinct singing on "Lately". Life of Leisure's six tracks, whether poppier and more approachable like "New Theory", or moody and alarming like "Hold Out", tend to cut off suddenly, which gives the EP an appealing, unfinished quality. Like hearing a work in progress: Greene has only been making music under his current moniker for a couple of months, so don't come flaming me if his live shows suck or his Dave Fridmann-produced sophomore album flops in 2013.

More than some contemporaries, though, Washed Out submerges a sense of intense feeling within its 80s-fantasy electronic ether. Greene's "copy of a copy" distance, then, comes across as a form of emotional repression. The yearning-in-utero effect is strongest on woozy centerpiece "Feel It All Around". With blurry singing, cheap-sounding synths, and a humid, syrupy flow, the track suggests an 80s synth pop hit that won't come straight out and cop to itself-- or a young man in love, too tongue-tied (or too stoned?) to admit it. "You feel it all around yourself," Greene echoes. As for what "it" is, the song never says.

If this review itself reads like a "memory of a memory" (to sample another phrase from Keenan), blame "Feel It All Around". Days after the filing of a final draft packed with trenchant insights drawn from the similarities between the track's choral drone and 10cc's 1975 hit "I'm Not in Love", it came to light that Washed Out's signature tune is actually based around a loop from Gary Low's 1983 single "I Want You". The words you're reading changed; the rating didn't. "You're soooooo... fine," it sounds like Greene's finally able to bring himself to say on finale "You'll See It", one of the EP's loveliest and most tuneful tracks; "Don't you fight it." OK, I have to go fast-forward through NutraSweet and Sylvania commercials to watch the TV movie of Alice in Wonderland with Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Scarlett Johansson / Pete Yorn - Break Up

Album Reviews
September 11, 2009

Break Up

Scarlett Johansson, the musician, has a way of getting herself into impossible situations. Like, I dunno, making her official recording debut with a version of jazz standard "Summertime". Joining a reunited Jesus and Mary Chain onstage at Coachella. Taking on the Tom Waits songbook. Covering Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye" for a romantic comedy based on a self-help book. Or owning the lips that inspired Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl". Um, I guess that last one isn't really Johansson's fault.

Add to the list: Putting out an album inspired by the 1960s duets of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Especially when the unkempt male in question is Pete Yorn, who had an unfairly panned sleeper of a debut album back in the David Gray era, then followed it with the kind of blandly forgettable slump that made a lot of people wonder why they ever liked either of those guys in the first place. On last year's Anywhere I Lay My Head, Waits' songs and producer David Sitek's woozy 4AD-style majesty would've made for an intriguing listen even if Johansson had been awful (she totes wasn't). Break Up, by contrast, resembles a Yorn album: nine tracks of tastefully beige, electronics-brushed roots-rock. Suddenly, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward's collaboration as She & Him sounds like The Velvet Underground & Nico.

In a way, it's a shame Yorn ever started making comparisons to classic "guy-girl" duos at all. If you take Break Up for what it is-- a low-key project recorded with little preparation in a couple of afternoons three years ago-- then the set has its charms. First single "Relator", for one, with its buzzing instrumental hook and breezy acoustic shuffle, is engagingly playful Rushmore fodder, only a White Stripes credit away from a spot on way too many year-end lists. When Yorn goes uptempo again, with the weeping guitar fills and crisp drum machines of "Blackie's Dead", he comes up with more of the blankly catchy hooks that propelled him to stardom. The song even ends with a mildly satisfying twist: "Darlin', you're forgiven/ I don't like what's goin' on."

That's right: In case you couldn't tell from the name, Break Up is about two characters who gradually find themselves in an impossible situation of their own. This conceit means just that much more extra-musical baggage for the skeptics out there to overlook. But as you might expect, it happens to suit Johansson. When she's able to sing closer to her natural, deeper range, as on a vaguely futuristic cover of late Big Star member Chris Bell's 1978 single "I Am the Cosmos", the husky creak in her voice would demand attention even if you didn't know her from Kirsten Dunst. But the same song is also one of the main instances where Quincy Jones grandson Sunny Levine's generally background-friendly production starts to get in the way, all vwerping bass and annoying tick-tocks. On predictable country-rocker "I Don't Know What to Do", complete with honky-tonk piano, how much fun Johansson is having beams right through lyrics clouded with confusion and doubt.

It's nobody's fault that She & Him's fine Volume One came out first, but the girl-next-door quality, like the usually higher vocal register, suits the glamorous Johansson less than it would the more approachable Deschanel. And that's when Johansson isn't buried in the mix: On banjo-rock plodder "Wear and Tear", she gets in barely a few backing words, while on bossa nova-tinged "Shampoo", Levine's stereo-panned electronic sounds-- twinkling in one channel, crunching in the other-- communicate the couple's disconnect better than anything in their dull dialogue (Johansson: "Run away"; Yorn: "I'd go anywhere with you"). Even on "Relator", Johansson's voice is crammed into the same kind of telephone-style filter that Yorn used to more memorable effect on 2001 single "Life on a Chain".

Yorn's story really isn't as different from Johansson's as you might think. His first big break came through the movies, too, when "Strange Condition" (later re-recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) landed on the soundtrack to 2000 Farrelly Brothers film Me, Myself & Irene. Nor is Break Up Yorn's first collaboration with a female singer. He previously worked with the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines on "The Man", an otherwise pretty typical Yorn midtempo strummer from his rock-leaning 2006 album, Nightcrawler. More recently, Yorn-- like Johansson-- has turned to veterans from the world of indie rock, working with Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis on this year's cleverly titled Back and Fourth.

Still, "Relator" aside, there's little about this duo's chemistry that lives up to Matt and Kim, let alone Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. "The memory fades away," Yorn sings in that faded Ryan Adams whisper on Break Up's sorrowful finale, "Someday". Their album is better than the knee-jerk beauty haters will tell you, but it rarely has the tunes or emotional impact to make it one of those rare impossible situations you'll actually want to remember. Breaking up shouldn't be this hard to do.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Taken by Trees - East of Eden

Album Reviews
September 4, 2009

East of Eden 

Feels so unnatural-- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, too. The late qawwali legend has earned the admiration of singers as different as Jeff Buckley, Eddie Vedder, and Devendra Banhart. On 1989's The Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack, he also worked with Peter Gabriel, who ended up releasing six of Khan's albums on his own Real World label. With so much indie culture these past few years stuck in the 1980s, Gabe fave raves Vampire Weekend are simply the most collegiate of recent bands returning to Toto's "Africa" for inspiration. Khan's native Pakistan has been comparatively overlooked.

Victoria Bergsman's recorded output to date is almost quintessentially Swedish. With the Concretes, she introduced Diana Ross shimmy to Mazzy Star haze, staying tuneful enough to soundtrack TV commercials. Lending her shy detachment to Peter Bjorn and John's world-conquering "Young Folks", she participated in a moment likely to define Swedish pop for many casual listeners the way Ace of Base or ABBA used to serve as shorthand for the peace-loving nation's catchiest export. Bergsman's debut album as Taken by Trees, 2007's Open Field, uses the full expanse of PB&J-er Björn Yttling's production (plus a songwriting credit from Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell) to evoke a gorgeously austere northern landscape, the kind of place where you appreciate the sun all the more because it shines so sparingly.

So it's tempting to be skeptical of Bergsman's trip to Pakistan to record a follow-up-- all the more so given an accompanying National Geographic mini-documentary's whiff of cultural condescension. Thankfully, East of Eden suits Taken by Trees the way a shift from folk-pop to terrifying avant-classical suited oft-mentioned German antecedent Nico. Bergsman's plaintive purr can't match Khan's multi-octave ululations, and unlike the late Buckley, she doesn't try. Instead, she and accompanist Andreas Söderström-- working with local musicians who've played alongside the maestro-- embrace the ecstatic peacefulness of this Sufi musical tradition's rhythms and instrumentation. Production from Studio's Dan Lissvik gives the nine-song, half-hour set an ascetic grace, sort of like secular devotional music. How very Scandinavian.

In truth, Taken by Trees' debut already had a similar religious quality, albeit owing more to the introspective folk of Nick Drake; excellent remixes by the Tough Alliance and Air France showed how much those songs could gain by leaving Europe. On East of Eden, sinuous woodwind and rippling hand percussion help give plainspoken love songs like "Day by Day" or "Watch the Waves" an eternal resonance, which Bergsman's understated poise only deepens. Söderström's dusty classical guitar should please Studio devotees on haunting opener "To Lose Someone", while from out of the swaying call and response of "Greyest Love of All" rises a perfect prayer for our time of endless Web 2.0 connectivity and ever-shortening attention spans: "I hope you'll find some peace of mind."

Noah Lennox, aka Animal Collective's Panda Bear, is no stranger to prayerfulness, field recordings, or non-rock influences; that he and Bergsman would develop a mutual affinity is only fitting. After the fashion of Studio, TTA, Air France, and some of Gothenburg, Sweden's other musicians, who like to retitle and reimagine the songs they interpret, Taken by Trees transforms Merriweather Post Pavilion highlight "My Girls" into intimate, harmonium-humming "My Boys". It's a little paradoxical, recording an ode to simple domesticity in a region where religious fundamentalism led men to consider the unmarried Bergsman "everyone's property," but as with any great hymn, this spirited meditation on indie-style puritanism should have the power to move even non-believers. Lennox, in turn, adds his incantatory vocals to the nylon-stringed regret of "Anna", where having "way too much tonight" can mean alcohol, fighting, or both.

If you go straight long enough, somebody once said, you'll end up where you were. East of Eden, in that sense, isn't so far from Studio's West Coast: a masterful, hypnotic album that draws on a world of influences but is ultimately limited by none. So the most distracting misstep is "Wapas Karna", essentially a field recording fronted by a qawwali singer rather than Bergsman herself, while two other less immediate tracks are compelling mostly for their impulse toward cultural merger: the sparsely adorned, Swedish-language melancholy of "Tidens Gång", which melts into ambient chirps in under two minutes, or the closing drone of "Bekännelse", apparently a setting of a poem by (German) writer Herman Hesse that reflects some of Bergsman's liberal guilt. "If you know what you want to create and are determined, you can do it wherever you are," Bergsman recently told London's The Independent. "I'd rather live in sunny California." This must be the place.

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