The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: electronica

Album Review: Justice – Audio, Video, Disco [Ed Banger Records]

When you examine it really carefully, hopefully you come to the understanding that the French electronica duo Justice are really just two guys that know how to market themselves really well. They’ve adopted a style all their own, both musically and visually, that is excessive in most every way. The leather jackets, the sunglasses, the blindingly bright live show (hence the sunglasses), and songs that demand to be played at volumes higher than any doctor would recommend as healthy. The poor mixing doesn’t do much to help them either, but it still doesn’t stop songs like “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” from becoming indie dance hits and raising their profile to the point where they’re nearly ready to headline a music festival. And to think all that came from just their first record, titled “†” and otherwise pronounced “Cross” when speaking about it. With the other, vastly more popular French electro duo of Daft Punk working on things like film projects or soundtracks to “TRON” sequels with a rare tour date here and there, a certain void has been left these last several years that nobody has really volunteered or attempted to fill. On their way up, Justice certainly aren’t objecting to the positive press they’ve been getting for their music, because even as everything about it feels exploitative and obvious, the band possesses a certain winking charm through it all. Think of them like a really gorgeous person you can’t help but stare at, maybe even lust over, yet after a brief conversation with them you realize they’re dumber than a box of rocks. Not somebody you’d want to spend all your time with or get involved with long term, but if you’re able to shut them up and just stare for awhile, hooking up for a few hours isn’t out of the question. Justice has tended to be the auditory version of that, getting tiresome, obvious and even a little annoying after awhile. When you’re on that dance floor just looking to have fun for a short bit though, their music seems like a great idea. So a few years and a whole lot of touring later, Justice has finally polished off their sophmore record, “AUdio, Video, Disco”. If you were hoping the duo was going to get harder, better, faster or stronger this time, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

Mid-March was when Justice first unleashed the song “Civilization” on the world, primarily as a sign that they were still alive and presumably were preparing a new full album’s worth of material rather than just a one-off single. A portion of it essentially premiered in an Adidas commercial, a sign of exactly what sort of headspace the duo appeared to be in going forward with their careers. While the song still carried many of the laser beam-like synths that made “†” a club favorite, it marked the start of something a little bit different for Justice – closer attention paid to song structure, which ultimately meant more careful development and build-ups to payoffs rather than throwing you into the dance pool from note one. “Civilization” takes a minute of psych-pop swirling before the chorus finally slams into high gear, and even then actual verses calm the dance storm while some smooth piano work closes things out rather gracefully. Across the track’s 3.5 minute duration, the hook only comes around twice. Previous Justice singles pushed the idea that repetition was the key to memorability, which is perhaps why “Civilization” doesn’t particularly stick with you. In fact, barely anything on “Audio, Video, Disco” is pure enough dance pop to strike at the pleasure center of your brain, and that’s a problem when your fans have come to expect exactly that.

There’s some sense of brilliance at the heart of this record though, and it largely stems from how challenging these songs are to enjoy. The title track is a great indicator of exactly how far these guys have come and the perfect display of how they should have composed the entire album. The hook is consistently repeated, but goes through a series of sonic changes that range from heavy dancefloor beat to light and airy and nearly a capella. In essence it is a microcosm of how the full record goes, dancing one minute, held in suspended animation the next, and indulging in progressive fantasies after that. The problem is they make these shifts from track to track instead of within a single song. The primary influence on this record appears to have changed as well, moving away from the club environment just a bit to embrace a much more classic rock feel. Guitars have suddenly become a huge part of Justice’s sound, and inventive beats come second. You can absolutely hear The Cars’ influence on “Newlands” or Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (with some flute) in “On’n’On” or Roxy Music’s riffage on “Brianvision”. Place some Queen-style march-like beats along with some synths behind these melodies and they become some sort of hybrid that’s not quite dance and not quite rock either. All these genres are blending together anyways these days, right? In essence yes, but such style twists are only effective if you know how to use them right. For the majority of “Audio, Video, Disco”, they do not know how to use them right.

You can’t blame Justice for wanting to expand on their sound and try something new. After all, their sound was somewhat novel on “†”, but if they tried to make the same thing as a sequel it’d sound bland and repetitive. Pop stars and DJ types from Skrillex to Deadmau5 have all adopted a similar style, sharply taking away its more unique aspects. “Audio, Video, Disco” avoids that trap, but winds up ineffective anyways because they fail to Frankenstein these disparate sounds into a genuine juggernaut. What it wants to be and what it is are two different things, and die hard fans of the first record will likely be left out in the cold, wondering what happened to this great electronica duo. For others, this can be considered a stepping stone for Justice. That’s not to say they’ll be trying out full-fledged arena rock next time around, but maybe they’ll use this new record as an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t so they won’t repeat their mistakes next time. Some artists go through growing pains on their way to brilliance, and this just might be theirs. At least the party vibe is still present, even if you can’t always d-a-n-c-e along to the b-e-a-t of every song.

Justice – Audio, Video, Disco (Single Edit)

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Album Review: Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder [Tri Angle]

How often do you take the time to appreciate nature? So many people, particularly those living in a major metropolitan area, simply don’t get the scenery of a placid lake or an open, verdant field on a regular basis. We see pavement and skyscrapers with people and vehicles everywhere. Take a long enough road trip and you’re bound to run into some lovely looking countryside along the way. Sometimes it’s nice to just stop for a minute and get a reminder of all this world has to offer beyond our jobs and friends and family. There’s great beauty in that wild, untamed landscape, and not only can that be mentally calming, but you might learn a thing or two as well. They have stores devoted to all of that nature stuff, from mini Zen gardens and dreamcatchers to rain sticks and white noise machines. Falling asleep to the sounds of the rainforest or the ocean can be soothing and provide a certain comfort to those that want it. Enter Balam Acab, otherwise known as 20-year-old Alec Koone, and his debut album “Wander/Wonder”. From its cover to the music contained within, nature, specifically water, is a theme that so dominates this record that it’s almost tough to call this music.

Of course with eight individual tracks, each with a distinctive melody along with vocals, “Wander/Wonder” is absolutely music, no matter how minimal the arrangements might be. Balam Acab has been slapped with the “witch house” label, a genre exercise that pushes darkness and electronic textures, along with slow tempos and modulated vocals. While the record pretty much falls within said genre, it fails to evoke the the dread and overall seediness required to satisfy the “witch” half. As it stands, you might as well say that Koone has crafted a record that is truly unique, one that in all its intimacy and exploration of silence pretty much qualifies to be in a genre all its own. With the distinctive water theme in tow, it’s rather easy to say that the album flows exceptionally well. You can hear the presence of water on every track, whether it’s lightly splashing, dripping or waves crashing onto the shore. The melodies are built around these environmental noises, so much so that the addition of some synths, electronic textures or beats comes across as largely organic. The vocals are completely undecipherable for the most part, either because they’re so buried beneath the melodies or have been messed with to the point where they sound completely alien. Opening track “Welcome” brings an operatic, almost Sigur Ros-like feel to the vocals, while something like “Apart” uses chipmunk voice as a companion to the R&B-like texture. You can nearly make out what’s being sung by a female voice on “Expect”, but the echo effect is so heavy it becomes tough to make sense of anything. That appears to be the point though, as we’re not listening to Balam Acab for brilliant lyrics but instead quietly invigorating sonic vignettes that trigger emotional responses.

Ultimately the worth of “Wander/Wonder” is almost entirely dependent on how easily you digest music that prizes serenity and beauty over traditional pop structures. This is not the sort of album you turn on in your car and enjoy on a road trip. This will likely scare off a room full of partying friends if you let it. If the sun is brightly in the sky and you’re ready to attack the day with your boundless energy, this album might dial that down a notch. Something like this is best enjoyed as a fully immersive experience. You don’t need to be high on drugs to have a transcendent moment with it, but it undoubtedly helps matters along. Just find a comfortable spot where you live, be it your bed or the couch or even the floor, strap on some headphones, and close your eyes. It’s worth warning that with the subdued nature of the album and the calming water theme, falling asleep while listening to “Wander/Wonder” is very easy to do. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Insomniacs might find it a useful tool at bedtime, while others might struggle to make it through the entire thing without succumbing to its soothing charms. Whether you make it through three minutes or all 36, this glorious album is more than worth the time you give to it. It also establishes Koone as a fascinating new talent to keep an eye on for the near future.

Balam Acab – Oh, Why

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Album Review: Little Dragon – Ritual Union [Peacefrog]

If you want to get technical, Swedish band Little Dragon has existed for 15 years now. That their recorded output has not matched that lengthy period of time is likely no fault of theirs. Call it a product of wasting away in the void of the millions of unsigned bands out there, they were signed to Peacefrog in 2007. After a self-titled record from that year and a sophmore effort “Machine Dreams” in 2009, interest in the band began to rise steadily. Still, they were viewed as almost a secret (at least in the U.S.) until they did a few high profile guest spots on a few different albums in the past couple years. Most notable among them is likely the two tracks featuring the band on the last Gorillaz album “Plastic Beach”. In fact, their work on the song “Empire Ants” impressed me so much that I named it my 22nd Favorite Song of 2010. It was primarily Yukimi Nagano’s smooth-as-silk voice that drew me in, and additional appearances on records by Dave Sitek (as Maximum Balloon) and SBTRKT only provided further evidence of Little Dragon’s worth. Suddenly the band has not only my attention, but the attention of millions more people than were aware of their last record. Striking while the iron is hot is important for any artist, which is why we’re now getting “Ritual Union”, Little Dragon’s third long player.

Having only heard Little Dragon from their guest work on other artists’ records, it’s interesting to hear what the band sounds like when the burden is fully on them. There is a reason why SBTRKT and Gorillaz were attracted to the band, and the way they handle beats and synths and other electronic elements provides that reason. They’re remarkably economical when it comes to putting together their compositions, ensuring that every instrument is utilized to its full potential without sounding overblown or understated. The sound is also remarkably smooth, and “Ritual Union” glides along on an almost futuristic track, which goes a long way towards helping to make the band’s sound relatively unique. All the elements are very familiar, it’s the way they’re put together that defies easy description. Anchored down by Nagano’s achingly beautiful vocals, there’s also an innate warmth that permeates these songs in spite of the rigidity a standardized beat structure can bring. All this without even mentioning that there are some pretty solid hooks via tracks like the title track, “Shuffle A Dream” and “Nightlight”. In fact, that opening title cut is very much the definition of what it means to start strong. One of the record’s biggest issues though is what happens after that.

There’s a certain high achieved at the very beginning of “Ritual Union”, both the album and the song, where right out the gate you’re left energized and impressed. The drop off is a steep one though, and when “Little Man” steps out next, it comes up, to turn a phrase, a little short. The song itself is likable, but it fails to fully grab you, as if there’s something slightly off about it. That pattern continues and bleeds into a handful of the album’s tracks, such as “Please Turn” and “Crystalfilm”, where you get the sense the band had the right idea and the right elements, they just were unsure precisely how to put it all together. Add to that some issues with the lyrics, in that they can tend to be on the bland or cliched side, and this record’s shiny exterior begins to lose much of its gloss. Throw in some darker and more depressing elements, and even the warmth contained in many of the songs also are pushing a stiff breeze behind them. Speaking in terms of progression, while I can’t speak for the band’s previous two records, I will say that much of this new material bears a lot of the same markings as their guest appearances with Gorillaz, Maximum Balloon and SBTRKT. At the very least they seem to know what works for them and are attempting to make this a continuation of those “featuring” roles that earned them so much acclaim and attention in the first place. It’s just a shame that when left solely to their own devices, they can never quite reach that high watermark. Perhaps if they’d brought in some guest stars of their own “Ritual Union” would have wound up with more peaks than it does valleys.

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Album Review: Pictureplane – Thee Physical [Lovepump United]

Did you listen to electronica back in the early 90s? This was the time when artists like Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers were making big waves around the world both for their beats as well as their unique music videos. What made these artists so popular was their ability to not simply rely on synths and other typical electronic textures, but to innovate and incorporate more elements of rock music into the mix. It’s a big reason why you heard “Smack My Bitch Up” or “Busy Child” on alternative rock radio. Unfortunately like so many trends, that sound eventually died out, and that’s part of the reason why Prodigy haven’t put out much worth mentioning in the last several years and why The Chemical Brothers are at the point where the soundtrack to a movie seems like a good idea (to be fair, they did a nice job with the “Hanna” soundtrack). There are still plenty of people nostalgic for that “90s electronica” sound, even whilst chillwave or glo-fi tries to adjust to survive. Considering that 90s garage rock has been having its own resurgence in the last couple years via bands like Yuck and Japandroids, electronica might as well have its turn. Thanks to Pictureplane, that’s more of a reality than ever. The project of Travis Egedy, Pictureplane burst onto the music scene in 2009 via the album “Dark Rift”. Songs like “Goth Star” provided some darker, more interesting twists and turns to the traditional mode of electronic music and pretty much signalled the creation of the subgenre of music known as “witch house”. The new Pictureplane record “Thee Physical” is cut from a similar but by no means the same cloth – commercial accessibility and smarter song structures take precedence, helping to make this one of the more fascinating electro albums so far this year.

The relationship between Pictureplane and the band HEALTH has been one of mutual admiration and friendship it seems, and the result of that has ultimately bettered both acts. For HEALTH’s sake, Pictureplane has served as helper and remixer on their last “DISCO” album, work that actually went a long way towards making the band’s somewhat difficult record a bit easier on the ears. In turn, HEALTH’s Jupiter Keyes played a large role by co-producing to help shape “Thee Physical”‘s sound into something more pop-friendly compared to the last album. There are far more active hooks, melodies that generally flow and loop better, and a stronger balance between the use of samples and live vocals. Egedy handles the vocals on close to every track, though often he’s not alone thanks to a number of quick one-word samples peppered in amongst the beats. With the melodies and beats carefully concocted, Egedy makes better and smarter use of his energetic but ultimately shaky vocals by placing them a touch farther into the background compared to his last album. They’re still remarkably functional and discernible, but without the potential hazard of having them appear weak or generally lacking. Yet in some cases the vocals are essential to make the track work. Opening cut “Body Mod” nearly stalls out until Egedy’s voice kicks in and propels the song in a very forward direction. Elsewhere the samples take free reign while Egedy’s singing plays second fiddle on a track like “Post Physical”, yet it does nothing to harm the song’s commercial appeal.

Not everything on “Thee Physical” works though, and those couple small issues do some remarkable damage to an otherwise solid effort. “Trancegender” contains what’s one of the strongest and most engaging hooks on the entire album, but gets bogged down in an excess of synths and beats all pushing for darkness and atmosphere. A similar darkness prevails on “Black Nails”, but while the track’s mixture of Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode-esque styles is compelling, the multiple layers of beats throw the main melody just a slight bit off-kilter to the point where you feel like it could have been so much more. At least the album is thematically sound, even if the subject matter tends towards the highly sexualized. One glance at the album cover’s leather-clad hand, along with song titles like “Sex Mechanism” and “Techno Fetish” should provide you with all the information you need as to what the overarching theme of the album is. Such subjects undoubtedly work well with the bump and grind of the dance floor, but not every track is built with that in mind. A couple of the songs featuring guitars, in particular a track like “Thee Power Hand” which closes the record, play closer to the rock and roll side of things, again with the 90s electronica references in place. Those minor detours create friction in the overall flow, thereby decreasing the impact an album like this could have. Taken individual track by track, there’s rarely an issue, but as a full piece there are noticeable missteps. Still, that doesn’t prevent “Thee Physical” from being a stronger and more exciting effort than Pictureplane’s debut, and the more commercially accessible pop-friendly melodies should bring a lot of new fans on board. Without a doubt, the next Pictureplane record could be the one that takes Egedy to the front doorstep of electronica’s greats.

Pictureplane – Post Physical
Pictureplane – Real Is A Feeling

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Click past the jump to stream the entire album!

Album Review: Washed Out – Within and Without [Sub Pop/Weird World]

Do you recall when people were trying to suggest that the chillwave/glo-fi sound was the future of music? The thought was that this wasn’t just another hyped subgenre but instead something that would become an evolutionary sea change. Personally, I chalked it up to more blowhards talking out of their asses, and assumed the chatter would die down like it always does, when the “next big sound” arrives. That hasn’t necessarily hit just yet, but the electronic sound with the lo-fi production is dying a slow death. Some artists, such as Memory Tapes, appear either slow or entirely unreactive to this evolution, using their most recent full lengths or EPs to hold steadfast in the same sounds they first arrived on scene with. Others, such as Toro Y Moi, have played it much smarter by upgrading to a far more clean-cut and “normal” approach. It’s a survival tactic, but it’s also a great way of showing that underneath the poorly produced exterior lies an album’s worth of highly catchy and easy to love synth-pop songs. This is where Washed Out comes in. The project under which Ernest Greene operates, Washed Out’s sound has been very much a direct indicator of what the name suggests. As such, you might expect Greene to stick with that same path for the new record “Within and Without”. The good news is that music is about so much more than just a name.

Freshly signed to Sub Pop Records thanks to two strong EPs worth of chillwave, Washed Out was given access to a professional studio and other such monetary advantages to help create “Within and Without”. The results are as you might expect – glossy and vibrant, with the synths riding up front and the vocals not much farther behind. It’s dance music, but not nearly in the traditional sense of the word. Subtlety is the name of the game, and the melodies will often slyly sneak up on you and snatch your attention when you least expect them to. There are no immediate hooks or blatant singles like “Feel It All Around” was on the “Life of Leisure” EP. Instead, a track like “Soft” may pass you by on the first go-around as being nice to listen to, but ultimately unmemorable. Then you’ll give it two more close listens, perhaps once with headphones, and suddenly that melody just won’t leave you alone. That’s just one example out of several across the album that reward multiple listens, drawing you in the more attention you devote to it. The relaxed pace is a big part of what makes “Within and Without” work as well, and there’s a certain truth contained within the album cover that features two people lying naked together in the heat of passion. Making love to things like the title track or “You and I” is perfectly sensible and nearly encouraged. But even if you don’t have somebody to get it on with while listening to this album, the sheer ambiance and warmth of it is great to put on at a party or in the background while you’re working or even after a long day where you need to relax. Despite the adjustment in fidelity, this is still CHILLwave after all, and the point is sort of missed if you don’t “chill out” while listening to it.

One of the issues this record runs into is that it might be heard as overly smooth by some, the better production values actually reducing the effectiveness of the material. There is the potential for the entire 40 minute album to slide right past without much notice, but that’s more the result of a poor attention span than it is poor content. From the small bit of cello on “Far Away” through much of the live percussion that unveils itself via a song like “Echoes”, it’s the little things that make “Within and Without” the best set of recordings from Washed Out yet. And even in spite of the better sound quality, that doesn’t make Greene’s vocals a whole lot clearer or more discernable. Between some attached reverb and the placement of the synths and other elements higher in the mix, you’ll likely still be left wanting if the hope was to comb over each and every word and the potential meanings behind them. Greene isn’t a bad singer by any means, but it’s clear that he’d like the focus to be squarely on melody. Besides, you can pretty much already discern from themes and song titles that these songs are about love and longing and summertime and the general sadness of time passing. Sometimes words don’t do those emotions justice anyways. To me, this record is the sonic equivalent of swimming underwater in a crystal clear pool on a sunny day. If that doesn’t seem like an amazing idea to you, then maybe this album or Washed Out in general just won’t click in the proper way. For everyone else, be warned that there’s only a couple months left of summer during which this album will be at its peak enjoyment level.

Washed Out – Eyes Be Closed
Washed Out – Amor Fati

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Album Review: SBTRKT – SBTRKT [Young Turks]

Let’s get the clarifications out of the way right from the start: when talking about SBTRKT, feel free to pronounce it “subtract”. This isn’t MGMT, where they get upset if you call them “management”. Of course saying each individual letter S-B-T-R-K-T can be a bit stressful to the tongue versus how much easier the 4 letters of M-G-M-T are to rattle off. So save some breath and just keep it simple. That could also very well be the unofficial motto of SBTRKT’s self-titled debut. Calling it easy on the ears is accurate, but by no means should that indicate that the music is dumbed down or skewed purposely towards picking up as many new fans as possible. Downbeat electro minimalism is the name of the game, and unlike his similar counterparts in a James Blake or Jamie Woon, SBTRKT isn’t trying to make his music glitchy or tough to follow. Compelling and expertly crafted seems to be good enough for him, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.

You should know that SBTRKT is less of a musician and more of a producer. He’s helped out a number of artists and done plenty of remixes, to the point where he’s known much more for that stuff than any original material he’s put together himself. In creating his own songs, most everything is electro-heavy without much in the way of actual live instrumentation. There are vocals on most of his songs, but they’re never his own. Guests on his debut album include Sampha, Little Dragon and Roses Gabor, among others, all contributing their voices to songs that are tight and engaging while holding onto a grand sense of modesty. The couple instrumentals definitely hold their own, but SBTRKT is smart in spacing them out across the album to avoid running into too many quiet, vocal-less passages. Additionally, the emphasis placed on the song itself rather than a particular beat or other element gives each track an earnest and more pop-driven appeal than a lot of the other music coming out of this particular subgenre.

While the first couple tracks on the album are by no means bad, it’s not until “Wildfire” hits that things really start to take hold. Little Dragon’s super smooth vocals are a big part of what makes it work so well, very much akin to her guest spot on the song “Empire Ants” from last year’s Gorillaz record “Plastic Beach”. Sampha does the wealth of singing on the album, guesting on about half the tracks. His voice has a distinct quality to it that works well in an R&B sort of way, and thankfully SBTRKT provides him with the necessary backing elements to pull off a solid assist. “Trials of the Past” is his biggest moment on the album, though “Something Goes Right” is pretty accurately titled as well. Roses Gabor’s turn on “Pharoahs” makes for a later highlight too. What surprising is how remarkably solid the entire album feels. For something that’s got a mixture of guest appearances, it could easily have fallen into territory like UNKLE, where the list of contributing artists can make or break it. Whether it’s one or three or ten, SBTRKT is smart enough to have the guests play to his strengths rather than the other way around.

Putting it bluntly, SBTRKT is for the crowds that have wanted to get into the more downtempo, quieter side of electronica but have had a tough time doing so because other artists have made it difficult to do so. They’re simply flexing their creative muscles to their maximum, and interesting though it may be, commercially appealing it is not. SBTRKT may not have any full-on club hits via his self-titled debut, but at the very least this is a wholly listenable and remarkably interesting set of songs. Experimental may not be the operative word that comes into play, but when you know how to put together a strong set of songs, the innovative side isn’t necessarily the most important one. Not knowing much about what a SBTRKT record might sound like considering his pedigree and initial EP, this record is a pleasant surprise. If he’s able to continue to put together albums this good, keep an eye and an ear out – SBTRKT is one to watch.

SBTRKT – Wildfire

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Album Review: Handsome Furs – Sound Kapital [Sub Pop]

When we last left our Handsome Furs heroes, they were riding high on their second record, “Face Control”. After the moderate mess that was their debut album “Plague Park”, husband and wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry could very well have been considered a second fiddle side project to Boeckner’s main band, Wolf Parade. At the same time, his Wolf Parade bandmate Spencer Krug was snatching all kinds of praise for his other projects Sunset Rubdown and Swan Lake. In other words, Handsome Furs had some work to do, and with “Face Control” they rose to the challenge and made a record that officially deemed them worthy of “main band” rather than “side project” status. It should come as little surprise then that after putting out one more album Wolf Parade has now gone on indefinite hiatus so everybody can do their own things. Handsome Furs are first out of the gate in 2011 with their third album “Sound Kapital”, and once again they’ve worked hard towards making the next leap on the evolutionary scale, this time inspired by their travels around the world.

One of the most admirable things that can be said about Boeckner and Perry is that they are not only consistently challenging themselves but also the ways of our society. Though their own personal political views certainly play something of a role in their lyrics, much of “Sound Kapital” reflects a worldview that is lacking in many aspects of freedom that we take for granted each and every day. Having played shows in countries where leaders or governments dictate everything from the clothes you wear to what type of music you can listen to, Handsome Furs have been inspired by those oppressed who take risks all the time to gain access to the many good things being kept from them. In that same mentality, Boeckner wanted to approach this new record from a different angle than he’d ever tried before, so he put down his guitar and picked up a keyboard. Handsome Furs have always been a guitar and keyboard duo, but with this dual keyboard attack new sounds and influences quickly revealed themselves. Electronica and 80s industrial music form the basis of the new album, which is naturally enveloped in darker moods and themes than before. Things never get quite as bleak or guitar heavy as say Nine Inch Nails circa “Pretty Hate Machine”, but they’re still in the ballpark of a Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, or even a Suicide while still maintaining their own sense of identity. Perhaps what’s most surprising though is just how danceable the whole thing is, with the creative beat structures ripe enough to draw envy from a number of current chart-topping pop artists and fun enough to push for a multitude of remixes. The paradox is fascinating given how these songs push you hard with their energy while bringing you down with their words. What unites these polarizing elements is the overarching themes of humanity and hope, that we’re all in this very real and very present struggle for personal freedom together, and the comfort that can be taken from that.

The pulsating “When I Get Back” kicks “Sound Kapital” into high gear right from the start. The synths sound off like trumpets heralding the arrival of a new age for Handsome Furs, one that’s got nothing but hooks and energy to spare. As blissful of an opener though it may be, at close to 5 minutes it nearly overstays its welcome. Cutting a verse likely wouldn’t have hurt anything. Incorporating actual radio broadcasts from foreign countries into “Damage” is a kitschy touch, but then later having Boeckner’s vocals filtered in the same sort of manner is actually quite intelligent. The frenetic pace at which it clips along blended with an easy to remember chorus only helps as well. Unlike some bands that clearly play their sound for nostalgia purposes, “Memories of the Future” not only sounds like science fiction but its lyrics are nothing but forward thinking. The past is strewn with plenty of conflict, to the point where most of our history classes simply teach about the major wars rather than all the good that gets done. The Handsome Furs vision of the future is a far more peaceful one, where we throw out all notions of the past in an effort to create peace and love in the present. Following that up is a song that plays to the total opposite crowd. “Serve the People” is a scathing indictment of oppressive leadership and how much suffering is caused by dictators and corrupt governments. It’s the singular track that really stands out among a record that tends to flow much smoother than it has any right to be. The reason it stands out, aside from its lyrics, is the slower pace and piano-reverb combination that starts it. The second half of the album is actually where things REALLY take off. The 1-2 punch of “What About Us” and “Repatriated” makes for a knockout in terms of extremely catchy dance tracks. “Repatriated” particularly strikes gold in the way it holds onto a New Order-like groove before carefully building and exploding to a higher level, like so many classic electronica songs have done. The lyrics as well, when paired with “Cheap Music” that follows are about fighting against the strict rules imposed upon people against their will.

Closing out the album is “No Feelings”, a 7-minute sonic mish-mash that seems perfectly normal until 4 minutes in when the guitars finally show up (for virtually the first time on the entire record) and wash away everything in a huge build up of white noise. Of course it all comes back around and balances out before the end, but the point is to be a palate cleanser. It echoes the lyrical theme, which is not about being devoid of emotion but rather viewing the world from a different perspective. You can’t have any feelings about something if you haven’t experienced it before or don’t know anything about it, and in so many ways that also describes Handsome Furs. They’ve once again changed their stripes to help make their most cohesive and easiest to digest record to date. It’s fun and functional and political all at the same time without being too heavy-handed in one direction or the other. Forget what you know about this band, or what you think you know about this band, and turn on “Sound Kapital” with fresh ears ready to experience anything. It’s wonderful to hear Boeckner and Perry finally making some serious strides and continuing to help us forget that Wolf Parade might never return. At this point it might be best for everyone involved. If there’s a gripe to be had about this record it’s how overly smooth and easy on the ears it is. You come away feeling so much better vs. their debut “Plague Park”, but that odd fish of a record was at least an attempt to push into some newer territory. For all their anti-nostalgia/look to the future rhetoric, it’s tough to listen to “Sound Kapital” and not think about classic bands and classic albums. This record may hang in good company with them, but wholly innovative it is not. Hopefully with their next one they can bring back some of the chutzpah. Then again, with three records that are markedly different from one another, who knows what they’ll have in store for their fourth.

Handsome Furs – What About Us
Handsome Furs – Repatriated

Buy “Sound Kapital” from Amazon

Album Review: Ford & Lopatin – Channel Pressure [Software/Mexican Summer]

You may have heard of Ford & Lopatin before, whether you know it or not. The two sides of this penny have been pretty well known for some work they’ve done previously, with Joel Ford having been a member of the band Tigercity and Daniel Lopatin making music under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. Outside of that, the duo have also been recording together for a little while now but using the name Games. After a series of mixtapes and and other general messing around in a studio, last year’s Games EP “That We Can Play” attracted some strong attention amongst the online community, bringing the appropriate hype along with it. Attached to that hype came some serious threats of lawsuits, because as you might expect the word “games” is far more common than you’d think, and also perhaps some of the samples they used weren’t entirely above board. So Ford & Lopatin it is, the combination of which is uncommon enough to where they can avoid any legal implications. Their official debut full length is titled “Channel Pressure”, and if you closely examine the cover art or just think of their old name Games, you should gain a surprisingly strong grasp of what the record might sound like.

Take one part electronica, another part 80s synth pop, and mix them together with a number of sonic elements that might otherwise be most at home on classic video games circa Atari or original Nintendo, and you’ve got the majority of what Ford & Lopatin are doing all over “Channel Pressure”. In order to best understand this sort of music, it really helps if you lived through it. As a child of the 80s, hopefully at some point you stayed up all night playing video games either at a friend’s house or at your own, depending on who had a system and what games. That was almost an essential part of any boy’s upbringing back in those days, and it’s those fond times that are triggered when listening to this record. It also helps if you’ve at least seen movies like “The Wizard” (starring Fred Savage) and “Tron” (the original) for what might best be described as “incidental music points” on the soundtrack. Like those movies and like those old video games, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in the way of vocals or lyrics, but sometimes if you kept listening to a particular song the instrumental would stick in your head anyways. Ford & Lopatin allow synth-laden instrumentals to take up most of “Channel Pressure”‘s running time, but they do make a concerted effort to bring in vocals whenever possible. Ford handles some of the singing, but Jeff Gitelman of The Stepkids and the effortlessly strange Autre Ne Veut each contribute a little bit as well, working to make this a much more traditional pop record than anything they’ve done in the past.

The way the songs on “Channel Pressure” are patterned is primarily in a staggered fashion, in which the instrumentals tend to fill in gaps or connect two songs with vocals. The first half of the album features three distinct highlights, all of them being the songs in which actual singing takes place (the chopped up “singing” that takes place on the title track doesn’t really count). For a first single, “Emergency Room” is remarkably fun and light, despite the darker content of the lyrics. The energy and strong bassline practically challenge you not to dance, while the swirling, woozy electro-synth bits in the background knock the track off-kilter in a fascinating way. The consistent repetition of the chorus helps too towards making this one of the record’s best and most memorable moments. The same cannot be said for “Too Much MIDI (Please Forgive Me)”, a song that gets by less on a hook-filled chorus and more courtesy of a generally strong groove that feels just a shade off something New Order would have done back at the height of their popularity. Tears for Fears is probably the best comparison to make when talking about “The Voices”, what with how the synths are layered and the few shimmering bells that pop up each time the remarkably catchy chorus rolls around. Paired directly next to the disco funk of “Joey Rogers”, it’s remarkable how two of the album’s most engaging tracks show up in the middle rather than at the more preferred junctures of the beginning or end. Still, the quality does drop just a little after that, with only Ne Veut’s surprisingly stable vocal turn on “I Surrender” and the pulsating, glitchy “World of Regret” providing moments worthy of being called great. In total that makes just under half the record worthy of your time, while the rest ranges anywhere from smooth transitional material to outright throwaways. The way those bigger moments are spread out across the duration of the album is immensely smart though, the little breadcrumb trails of delight just providing enough inspiration to keep you interested until the next one rolls around.

The good, if not great news for Ford & Lopatin is that “Channel Pressure” on the whole works better than it has any right to. Even when it’s not hitting the marks it needs to, the overall form and consistency of the record helps to make it stable. The outright pop songs they have put together are pretty great too. What should be of concern is how it apes so much of the excellent synth pop from the 80s yet fails to carve its own territory out of that niche. This album is unique if only because few if any artists are making music like this anymore. It is the bygone product of a bygone time, but in the sense that everything old is new again, Ford & Lopatin make a strong argument for bringing it back. They’re just hoping enough people will agree with them.

Ford & Lopatin – Emergency Room

Buy “Channel Pressure” from Amazon

EP Review: UNKLE – Only the Lonely [Surrender All]

Now feels like as good of a time as any to check in with UNKLE. James Lavelle has stuck with the project longer than anyone thought he would, in particular after all the personnel changes that have occurred over the years. From its humble beginnings with DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy to the supreme reign of Richard File, those guys each contributed their own unique angles on UNKLE’s typically dark electronic landscapes. With File jumping ship after 2007’s “War Stories”, early reports speculated that Lavelle was going to turn in his dance card, but Pablo Clements would step into File’s shoes a short time later and keep everything going strong. Stronger than ever before it turns out, because in the past 5 years there’s been twice as much material from Lavelle than there was in the previous 10 years. 2008’s “End Titles…Stories for Film” was a slightly different UNKLE record, reliant on atmosphere and soundtrack-like pieces (as the title suggests) rather than the typical guest stars. Last year’s “Where Did the Night Fall” was a return to more standard fare, bringing in another array of vocalists that ranged from The Black Angels to Katrina Ford and Mark Lanegan. Now nearly a full year later, UNKLE is putting out a deluxe edition of that album, packaged with some extra material like instrumentals and new songs. For those that already own the record and don’t want to buy it again in a more expensive form, the “Only the Lonely” EP is one solution to get most of those extras separately. And though they are intended as companion pieces, one need not own or have heard the last album to appreciate the EP. In fact, it might just be better that way.

It’s natural to think that maybe the whole point of the “Only the Lonely” EP is to squeeze a little more blood from the same sessions that yielded “Where Did the Night Fall”. That’s something UNKLE could very well have done, and if you get the new deluxe edition of the record there’s plenty of outtakes and b-sides to whet your whistle should you be a completist. This EP though is far better than a simple set of tracks that couldn’t find a place elsewhere. You don’t get Nick Cave to provide a guest vocal and NOT use him, so it’s more than reasonable to assume that most if not all of the five tracks on this EP have been recorded in the last year. Cave’s track “Money and Run” commences the brooding immediately, as as tradition for any UNKLE release. One gets the impression that Lavelle has not seen actual sunshine in a long time. Then again, the same could be said for Cave, and the two would seem to make for an inspired pairing. It works out pretty much as planned, as Cave gives the tale of criminal activity and evildoers all the gusto it requires, matched by an instrumental soundscape of scuffed up guitars and tired drums. Great though it may be, it doesn’t quite stand up to a lot of Cave’s other work with Grinderman and the Bad Seeds and such. Yet it champions over virtually every other track on the EP and holds a place somewhere around UNKLE’s 10 best tracks to date. Liela Moss of The Duke Spirit throws her vocal chords behind “The Dog Is Black” next, and the gothic atmosphere blends supremely well with her sultry voice. Two tracks in and very little to complain about, save for some weak lyrics that only become a problem if you focus on them with the utmost intention of dissection.

One of UNKLE’s biggest faults has always been trying to pack too much into a singular record, and as a result completely sandbagging the entire thing by being too weighty for too long. A shorter EP then seems like a great way to study if Lavelle and company can fare any better by moving briskly. The centerpiece of the “Only the Lonely” EP is the instrumental title track, and after two strong opening cuts this is where weakness begins to show its face. Not much happens in the track, which is exactly what you want to avoid on a track without vocals and lyrics. Thankfully the last two cuts redeem that soggy midsection with solid performances from Gavin Clark (“Wash the Love Away”) and Sleepy Sun’s Rachel Fannan (“Sunday Song”). Unlike the Cave and Moss songs though, these backloaded tracks deserve to be placed exactly where they are, trailing everything else courtesy of their sheer normalcy. If you’ve listened to enough UNKLE then you’re more or less aware of their standard operating procedure, of which these last two songs hold to hard and fast. The positive is that normal for UNKLE is almost always better than you expect, so those songs balance things out relatively well. The issue is that on an EP where you only have 5 songs, the hope is that every one of them is exceptional. For the “Only the Lonely” EP, that’s just a slight bit more than half true. Still, in this bite-sized chunk of music, a lot of past pitfalls have been avoided, leaving you with the tease that just maybe Lavelle and his wealth of co-conspirators can actually escape from their nearly forgotten hole if they buckle down and focus their energies just a little bit more. Or maybe Lavelle can just convince Thom Yorke to come back for another guest vocal.

UNKLE – Money And Run (feat. Nick Cave)

Buy the “Only the Lonely” EP from Amazon MP3

Album Review: Cut Copy – Zonoscope [Modular]

First and foremost, Australian band Cut Copy are all about the dance floor. The numerous labels affixed to their sound, be it dance rock, dance pop, synth pop, electronica, etc., don’t matter so much as knowing that if you put on a Cut Copy record, there’s little chance you’ll be able to avoid moving at least one part of your body to the beat. But in addition to those intense grooves, they’re also extremely adept at crafting hooks that stick with you long after the music has stopped. Their last album, 2008’s “In Ghost Colours”, was plentiful in all those ways, and tracks like “Lights and Music” and “Hearts On Fire” were more than just great cuts to play in the club – they were anthems worth playing in some huge spaces. That record also had a very “night out” feel to it, perfect to play when the neon lights were aglow and you’re cruising the city in a flashy suit or sparkly dress. The band is back at it again this week with their third full length “Zonoscope”, and it’s a lighter, brighter affair that scales back the massive choruses just a little in an effort to produce something a little more intelligent and cohesive than what they’ve done before.

“Zonoscope” opens with the uplifting “Need You Now”, a 6+ minute track that starts with a relatively basic beat and builds to an explosion of light and energy that’s just plain thrilling. There’s a distinct 80s pop vibe to “Take Me Over”, and it’s no wonder considering that much of the melody is just a dressed up dance version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” with new lyrics. Cut Copy make it their own, though it does have what feels like a Blondie vibe too (think “Heart of Glass”). And in what becomes a running theme through the course of the record, “Take Me Over” transitions flawlessly into first single “Where I’m Going” without looking back. Thanks largely to the backing vocals and a little bit of a psychedelic edge, “Where I’m Going” comes across like a beat-heavy Beach Boys classic. The track has such a sunny disposition to it, with the energetic shouts of “Yeah!” during the insanely catchy chorus, that you’ll fall in love with it almost immediately. Altogether it makes for one of the best songs of a young 2011, and at this point in time it’s difficult to think of how much else could surpass its brilliance.

The way the keyboards and splashes of cowbell are used on “Pharaohs and Pyramids”, along with the eventual wind-up and breakdown in the final 1:45 of the song, there’s something about the track that transports you to a classic club setting. It feels like something a band like Delorean would put out, though three things actually push this song to an entirely higher level. First is the beginning of the track, which holds a Talking Heads-ish stature before the chorus strikes the first time. Second is the end of the track, which courtesy of some carefully placed bass guitar brings to mind New Order in the best possible ways. And thirdly, Dan Whitford’s vocals convey just the right emotions compared to the tempo and overall arrangement. If a record like this could actually get away with going a bit sentimental, this is the closest Cut Copy get and it works beautifully. Not just because of the title, “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution” owes some contemporary debts to LCD Soundsystem and !!!, as both bands have similar markers that are on display in the track. The bits of xylophone and violin are nice Cut Copy touches though, bringing just a little extra wink and a smile to the party.

Guitars begin to factor in much more heavily on the second half of the album. “This Is All We’ve Got” brings in some almost shoegaze-inspired hazy electrics amidst the twinkling electronics for what ultimately becomes a very lovely ballad. That leads to a silky smooth transition into “Alisa”, which is by far the most guitar-centric song on the entire record. At its core the song is reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen mixed with David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine. It’s still very pop-driven and danceable, but darker and again with the shoegaze edge. Acoustic guitars show up for a bit on the ballad “Hanging Onto Every Heartbeat”, blending pretty effortlessly with the spacier electro bits and synths. For some reason the band Yes comes to mind whenever I hear that song, and the comparison may very well be justified in this case. “Zonoscope” ends on a pretty wild note, with the 15+ minute “Sun God”. The track is essentially a showcase for everything they’ve done on the album up until that point, moving from a slightly uptempo pop song into a blissed out instrumental. The good news is that there’s very few dead spots across that 15 minute runtime. The bad news is that there’s very little justification for why the song exists in the first place as it primarily feels like an extended club remix of a normal Cut Copy song. Given what you’ve been listening to for the previous 45 minutes, such a thing can’t be considered bad, just a little underwhelming considering what came before it.

This is not the best time of year to be releasing a dance album, but that’s probably only relevant if you live in a place where the weather gets cold and snowy in February. Of course it’s always hot inside dance clubs no matter where you are, with crowds of sweaty bodies rubbing up against one another. “Zonoscope” is less of a club record than Cut Copy’s last one, but that doesn’t make it any less good. The more tempered approach taken by the band this time puts better overall composition on display, which in turn also does well in elevating moods. If you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder and a daily dose of sunshine just isn’t doing the job, this album is like the audio version of that. Even once the weather improves and you’re outside in some blistering heat, you’ll still feel motivated to dance if you turn this record on. What Cut Copy lacks in the emotional connection that LCD Soundsystem does so well, they more than make up for with dynamic pop hooks and flawless transitions that work so well portions of the album feel like one long slice of beat-infused bliss. If you can appreciate such things, “Zonoscope” will likely be one of your favorite albums of 2011. So far, it’s most definitely one of mine.

Cut Copy – Need You Now

Cut Copy – Take Me Over (Thee Loving Hand Remix by Tim Goldsworthy)
Cut Copy – Take Me Over (Midnight Magic Remix)

Buy “Zonoscope” from Amazon

Album Review: Daft Punk – Tron: Legacy OST [Disney]

Daft Punk haven’t released a new album of original material since 2005’s “Human After All”. That’s not to say they haven’t been busy though. They’ve continued to perform mindblowing live shows on occasion and even released a live album in 2007. Oh, and we can’t forget the movie they made, “Electroma”, which they wrote and appeared in but did not create the soundtrack. The film wasn’t the first they’d made, and it probably won’t be the last. One of the themes that Daft Punk seem to be exploring in their various projects are the close relationships between the visual and auditory. It’s a big part of what makes their live shows so kinetic and engaging. That’s why it makes perfect sense that the duo would actually craft a movie soundtrack someday. It was just a matter of finding the right film to work on. The ideal situation finally presented itself a couple years back as Disney was preparing to make a sequel to the 1982 cult classic “Tron”. With the technology available today, recreating the futuristic video game world for “Tron: Legacy” seems like an inspired idea. Apparently Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo is a huge fan of the original film as well, so the duo cut a deal with Disney to provide a full album’s worth of new music that would serve as the official soundtrack.

Had the makers of “Tron: Legacy” chosen to use old Daft Punk music to soundtrack the film, it’d probably turn out just fine. Daft Punk is one of the best electronica groups in music today, and songs like “Around the World” and “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” sound very futuristic in and of themselves. Still, the prospect of entirely new Daft Punk is too good to pass up, particularly with the attention it’d bring, so it made the anticipation for the film itself that much higher. Fans of the duo have been clamoring for any material they can find from the soundtrack, and bits of excitement came in the form of the movie’s trailer, which features the song “Derezzed”. Amazon has since begun to offer 30 second preview snippets of the album, and NPR just put up a lengthy interview with the film’s music supervisor that has a few songs from the soundtrack available for streaming as well. These little bits and pieces are certainly getting more attention than, say, Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” soundtrack or Clint Mansell’s “Black Swan” soundtrack, both of which are hotly tipped for Oscar nominations. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did attract attention for their soundtrack work on “The Social Network” this year, and that was largely because of how different it sounded compared to your average Nine Inch Nails song. But assuming you’ve paid enough attention to catch at least a small clip of the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack, you’ll easily recognize that while it may be Daft Punk behind the music, there’s a whole big 85-piece orchestra backing them up. Two synthesizers and a drum machine just isn’t going to cut it anymore, as interesting as that might have been. So with all those extra moving pieces as part of every song, any hope that this might be a fun and danceable soundtrack like their normal albums gets thrown out pretty quickly.

Opening with “Overture”, the orchestra swells and there’s this whole grand, triumphant moment that comes across like the excitement that all the “Tron” nerds will be experiencing once that movie title is revealed on the screen. Things get decidedly more electronic after that, with Jeff Bridges doing a spoken word thing as he describes “The Grid”. The beat is downtempo, but synths come in with a little symphonic assist and the 90 second track gets a sharp Daft Punk stamp on it. The same can be said for “The Son of Flynn”, which has plenty of skittering electro-parts while a horn section quietly rises in the background. That’s sort of the way things go for the entire record; often the orchestra holds down and dominates a track with plenty of cellos and violins that race along like a light cycle on the track. Synths and other electronica elements play a significant role in most tracks too, tending to lend the entire soundtrack a very dark, epic and futuristic vibe. A dance record this is not (“Derezzed” being about the only exception), but it’s not a typical soundtrack either. Daft Punk make sure their presence is known, even if it involves a squelch here or a drum machine there. To put it another way, if you subtract the duo from every track, you end up with an extremely normal and somewhat boring collection of instrumentals that still work. As it stands though, the Daft Punk bits added will serve to compliment the film perfectly and turn this from a merely good soundtrack to an extremely good if not great one.

Where the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack will work best is obviously within the context of the film. Given that it’s not in theatres yet, though the soundtrack isn’t out until next week anyways, just listening to it completely separated from the visual elements is really fascinating. To be able to pin certain tracks to certain scenes will only increase each track’s value as time goes by. And based on some of the track names, you can guess bits of plot information or what scene it belongs in. Will “Disc Wars” be playing when some characters throw those light-up frisbees at one another? You can probably put money on it. Whether or not you choose to put money on the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack can be a challenging decision to make. As great as Daft Punk can be, and they prove it again here, this isn’t the sort of record you’re going to want to throw on for casual listening or at a party. A better thought would be to make a call on picking this up based on your past instrumental soundtrack experience. Does something like John Williams’ “Star Wars” soundtrack get your blood moving in the right sort of way? Perhaps you prefer a more traditional pop song, something with words and actual singing. Or maybe Daft Punk’s dance-filled records like “Homework” and “Human After All” are more your style. This album has a high possibility of disappointing you if you’re on board solely because you’ve loved everything the French duo has done in the past. It’s been 5 years since the last record and some of us are starving to hear something, anything, new from Daft Punk, but this isn’t quite what was expected. The ray of hope is that considering the complicated and epic nature of these tracks, you’ll probably never see the majority of them performed live. This soundtrack then functions as more of a one-off, and maybe a more traditional dance-filled electronica Daft Punk album isn’t too far down the line. It’s nice to know that these guys can make a pretty killer soundtrack, but perhaps next time the orchestra and enslavement to a storyline can take a break for something truly worthy of the legacy that this duo has had going for them the last decade.

Stream 21 minutes of the soundtrack at Myspace

Preorder the “Tron: Legacy” soundtrack from Amazon

Live Friday: 11-5-10

Today’s Live Friday session is with trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. They put out a new album this year titled “Heligoland”, and it was their first in quite awhile. You might expect that coming off such a long break they’d have perfected every little nook and cranny of such a record, but the end product is more on a level of “very good” compared to “mindblowing”. Still, that doesn’t make this session any less exciting or intense, and they do concede by playing a couple of their more classic tracks in addition to the new ones. The song “Teardrop” is probably their biggest hit to date, though you might only recognize it as the opening credits song to the excellent medical drama “House”. Thankfully they perform that, along with some of the stronger material on “Heligoland” (with special guest Martina Topley-Bird). There’s also a pretty great interview with Daddy G and 3D as they talk about their creative process, how they work with so many guest vocalists, and the challenges of recreating their records in a live setting. Very informative, especially since I’ve never heard an interview with the guys before. You can stream that below, but the downloadable songs are the real treat. By the way, apologies but I’m unable to host “Atlas Air” directly, so you’ll have to go to Zshare if you’d like to download it. The 8+ minutes it lumbers on is pure excellence though, and worth hearing.

Massive Attack, Live on WXPN 10-14-10:
Massive Attack – Psyche (Live on WXPN)
Massive Attack – Teardrop (Live on WXPN)
Massive Attack – Atlas Air [Zshare]
Massive Attack – Mezzanine (Live on WXPN)

Stream the entire interview/session

Buy “Heligoland” from Amazon

Album Review: Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma [Warp]

When it comes to electronica music, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I don’t know much. I tend to prefer my songs with guitar, or at the very least a chorus that attempts to get itself stuck in my head. Ask me to tell you about the difference between house and dubstep and IDM and I’ll give you just about the blankest stare you can possibly get. Yet a good electronica album, for me, is hard to find, and there are occasionally tricks certain artists can use to attract my attention. Girl Talk, what with his myriad of samples that pulls from so many familiar and classic tracks, is easiest on my ears because I know what I’m hearing. Electronica artists that are also able to generate much hype amid their peers or other artists I boldly respect can catch my eye as well. Then there’s the easy way – get some artists I love to do some guest work on at least one track, which will basically guarantee that I hear at least that single song. This is how Flying Lotus snagged me, both on the recommendation of my personal hero, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, but also through his active participation, lending guest vocals to the song “…And the World Laughs With You,” which also earned him hype in all the right circles. Thom also had Flying Lotus open up for his “solo” band Atoms for Peace on their recent short tour earlier this month, where I happened to attend one of the Chicago dates. Honestly, when I walked into the venue I thought Flying Lotus had already finished and they were playing your standard between-set DJ fodder while waiting for Atoms for Peace to start. That is, until I noticed the one guy on stage with his laptop, who eventually grabbed a microphone and said, “Thanks Chicago!”. So, against my better judgment, I’m all for giving the new Flying Lotus album “Cosmogramma,” a quick try and review before it comes out on Tuesday.

Given how little I know about both electronica and any Flying Lotus material prior to “Cosmogramma,” I’m surprised that the album impressed me as much as it did. I suppose that like any musical form you’re not acquainted with, if you hear something special or unique in it, you’re more inclined to understand how it might be viewed as brilliant. In this case, I’m highly impressed with how FlyLo is able to use a multitude of instruments, everything from the harp to acoustic guitar to saxophone and just about every percussive instrument in existence (ping pong balls?), melded around his computer-generated melodies. There are seemingly impromptu jazz breaks, string sections, bass-heavy grooves, and fanciful dream sequences all packed into this album, and almost all of them work towards the space opera concept the record is supposedly centered around. I can tell you this much – from the opening beats of “Clock Catcher” through the ethereal “Satelllliiiiiteee”, this is a damn near perfect album. I loved every second of that first half, which includes exceptional highlights such as the Thom Yorke-guesting “…And the World Laughs With You” and the funky “Do the Astral Plane”. Things get a little sketchy after that, what with “Germain Haircut” and “Recoiled” both being a little listless and lacking, but the electro blips and symphony into soft palate harp combination on “Drips/Auntie’s Harp” isn’t half bad, and I’m effortlessly charmed by “Table Tennis”.

So I guess you can mark down that as somebody who doesn’t consider himself an expert nor even a general fan of electronica has found lots to like about Flying Lotus’ “Cosmogramma”. The main reason why, I’ll argue, is that there’s so much more to this material than your average electronica artist puts in. It feels less like a record based around certain beats and grooves and more like an instrumental artistic experiment that just so happens to feature a fair amount of electronica. Rare is the record so carefully composed and layered as this one, and given the difficulty of reproducing this live on your own with a laptop, it’s no wonder I didn’t give much heed to FlyLo’s pre-Atoms for Peace performance. This guy is clearly brilliant, on the level that somebody like Aphex Twin is brilliant (hint: this is a high compliment). Yes, this is the best flat-out electronica album I’ve heard so far this year (of note, electro-pop, ala LCD Soundsystem, doesn’t fall into the category just described). You will probably see me mention it again at the end of the year among my favorites. Well played, Flying Lotus. You suck me in with a Thom Yorke recommendation and guest vocal, and have me leaving with high praise all around. This album may not push me into a new-found love of electronica, but it does generate enough good will to make me more open to releases similar to this in the future. Consider that a best-case scenario. I hope you’ll give “Cosmogramma” a try, as I did, and I hope you’ll also not regret it, as I did.

Stream the entire album at Myspace

Non-album track: Flying Lotus – Quakes  (via The Fader)

Preorder “Cosmogramma” from Amazon

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