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Tag: trip-hop

Album Review: La Big Vic – Cold War [Underwater Peoples]

Let’s start by throwing out the book on La Big Vic. That is to say, forget what you know or think you know about this band. If you already know little or nothing about them, so much the better. Their debut album, 2011’s Actually, didn’t receive that much attention, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why they chose to release a remixed version of it later that same year. You could say it speaks to their indecisiveness, that they’d act so quickly as if to say, “If you didn’t like that first version, here’s a different one we hope you’ll like better.” They are George Lucas, endlessly tweaking the Star Wars films until they’re nearly unrecognizable from their first form. It’ll be interesting to see if the band takes that same remix tactic with their sophomore album Cold War. It’s an interesting and different record from their first one to be sure, and it speaks better to their individual backgrounds while also bringing more focus and better pop structures to the forefront. Their first record and its remixed companion weren’t bad by any means, but they feel starkly different compared to how La Big Vic sounds today. You could say they’re looking for and are getting a fresh start.

La Big Vic is a trio made up of producer and multi-instrumentalist Toshio Masuda, synth guru and composer Peter Pearson and violinist and singer Emilie Friedlander. Before coming to America, Masuda was a member of a boy band and produced hip hop records and commercials. Pearson had some training as an apprentice to one of Pink Floyd’s live producers, and Friedlander was a music blogger and editor of the former Pitchfork offshoot Altered Zones. Their very disparate backgrounds ultimately wind up being a huge asset to their overall sound, as they pull from such a grand chasm of influences that range from electronica to jazz to psychedelia to synth-pop. Such a conglomeration doesn’t work on paper, which is why actually hearing it makes it seem that much more impressive of a feat. On Cold War nothing sounds too bizarre either, and you might actually say the final product is one part Zero 7 and one part Kaputt from Destroyer.

There’s a strong beat that flows like an undercurrent through many of the songs, lending them an almost trip-hop sort of vibe with a few unique twists along the way. Moments like the opening title track or Avalanches-esque vocal sampling in “Save the Ocean” reach a great head-bopping, toe-tapping groove, but also place themselves underneath a grey cloud that is threatening rain the entire time. That sense of unease and dread permeates most of these instrumentals only adds to their strange charm. Friedlander’s vocals aren’t any help either, jumping from a throaty moan to some sky-high falsetto cries of ecstasy that make you question whether or not such reactions are earned given how they bounce all over the place like a rubber ball in a small space. On “Emilie Say’s” she goes from an almost inhuman vocal high-pitched effect at the beginning to cascading through multiple octaves and eventually creating harmonies via multiple overdubs. In one sense it’s remarkably impressive, while on the other it lacks a certain degree of emotional investment. It’s easy to argue that inability to connect emotionally hurts your enjoyment of the final product, but it can just as easily be argued that such abstract ambiguity is purposeful to go along with the lyrics.

If there’s one real takeaway that Cold War offers up, it’s the remarkable clarity of intention that shines through almost every song. For a band that was built on flights of fancy and strange avenues of experimentation, this new album is strikingly straightforward, with big melodies and addictive hooks. The ease at which “All That Heaven Allows” or “Ave B” become stuck-in-your-head staples is impressive and would have been utterly unthinkable from La Big Vic two years ago. And while both of those tracks have a rather relaxed vibe to them, you’re also treated to ’80s synth pop dance tracks like “Nuclear Bomb” and “Cave Man” to twist things up in a fun and different way. In other words, this album has enough variety and experimentation on it to satisfy those in search of such elements while also placating anyone who wants something bigger, bolder and more commercially accessible. The band wants to have their cake and eat it too, and while the album might not quite be that first true masterpiece of 2013, it comes pretty damn close. The record also goes a long way to make sure that once you’ve heard it, you won’t ever forget this band again.

La Big Vic – All That Heaven Allows
La Big Vic – Ave B

Buy Cold War from Amazon

Snapshot Review: Purity Ring – Shrines [4AD]

According to the dictionary, a purity ring is a “type of promise ring that pledges abstinence.” In more plainspoken terms, by wearing a purity ring you promise to not have sex until you get married. As many who wear purity rings will claim, the wait is worth it. How fitting then for a band calling themselves Purity Ring to make us wait a long time before releasing their first full length album. First appearing in early 2011, they began releasing single after single, like a trail of breadcrumbs to keep us interested and engaged. It helped that they were really good songs, too. Describing their sound can be a little difficult, but it’s fair to say they’re like a more pop-driven version of The Knife or Crystal Castles, pairing skittering hip hop-esque electronic beats with often masked female vocals. The duo of Corin Roddick and Megan James are responsible for the project. Roddick handles the instrumental side, and James does vocals and lyrics. Their first single “Ungirthed” did just about everything right, fusing together little electro plinks with surges of bass, and James’ vocals playfully floating above it all. It was fun and surprisingly addictive, which was a trend that continued with additional singles like “Belispeak” and “Fineshrine.” A grand total of five out of eleven songs off their new album Shrines were released leading up to it, and there wasn’t a weak track among them. Now with the whole thing available for your consumption, the great news is that their previous success wasn’t a fluke. Even the non-singles carry hints of being potential future singles, and this record is so jam packed with them it can be a challenge to pick out the highlights. On any given day you might fall in love with “Crawlersout,” only to have “Lofticries” dig its claws into you the next time around. That’s a good sort of problem to have, though for fans that have been keeping up with the band since 2011, some of those earliest tracks will always be considered noteworthy moments. Newcomers to the Purity Ring bandwagon may initially find inspiration in certain songs, though the entire record might start sounding like an amorphous blob after awhile. Such a reaction is completely natural given that the template tools used to make this album don’t really change from track to track. Even the lyrics are thematically similar, filled with vibrant body imagery. “Sea water is flowing from the middle of my thighs,” James sings at the start of “Crawlersout.” The very next song is “Fineshrine,” where she encourages somebody to “cut open my sternum and poke my little ribs around you.” From the ringing ears and clicking teeth of “Ungirthed” to the sweating lips and starving hips of “Saltkin,” and even to the album cover featuring disembodied hands and lungs, Purity Ring are very easy to figure out, even if their distinct sound and lyrics can be challenging. It’s the angle they approach each melody and hook that makes the difference, rewarding close listening. If Shrines has a failure, it comes via the mid-album oddity of “Grandloves.” Isaac Emmanuel of Young Magic shares vocal duties with James in what feels like an ill-advised duet where he tries on his best computer-glitchy Beck impersonation. The song’s not bad by any means, but really more pedestrian and uninspired than everything that surrounds it. Otherwise it’s a very impressive debut from a band that continues to change and evolve with time. It might take them a few years to finally generate a follow-up LP, but if history is any indication, we’ll be hearing a new song or two or five before then. If it’s anywhere near as good as what we’ve been given on Shrines, it truly will have been worth the wait.

Buy Shrines from Amazon

Listen to me talk about Shrines on a podcast.

Show Review: Portishead [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 10/12/11]

The last time Portishead showed up in Chicago, the year was 1998. They are a temperamental band at best, taking their sweet time in creating new music and equally so in scheduling live shows. Every indication is that they don’t much care to do what’s expected of them, and in that way it also makes them a more compelling band. Case in point: Portishead’s last record Third was released 3.5 years ago. They only halfway toured to support it then, only really stopping by North America to play Coachella before leaving again. For whatever reason, and not because they’ve been working on new material or have anything in particular to promote, Portishead just now chose to come back to the U.S. for about a dozen dates. They rolled into Chicago last night for a sold out mid-week show, acting like a parent that abandoned you 12 years ago and suddenly shows up wanting to pick up right where they left off as if nothing had happened. The truth is, they’ve changed and we’ve changed in that massive gap, but by no means does either of us have to accept that fact. You make the best of the time you’re given.

Portishead started their set at the Aragon the same way most bands start their live show – with the first track off the last record they released. In this case it was “Silence”, and though the crowd was cheering loudly as the band emerged on stage, they let out an even louder roar once the spoken word intro to the song began to play. The band came more than prepared too. The main trio of Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley had a few utility players on hand to help recreate and/or supplement what they’ve done on record, with Barrow being the multi-instrumental crux upon which the rest of the band turned. He held down center stage but positioned himself behind Gibbons and her microphone. Barrow was more than solid from start to finish, but his biggest moments of shining glory came primarily in the second half of the set. On “Machine Gun” he pounded the drum pads with more precision and speed than on record, while on “Over” and “Cowboys” he showed off turntable scratching skills that would make most DJs jealous.

Gibbons certainly held her own for the duration too, as any lead singer tends to secure all the praise or blame for the entire band because he or she has a microphone and can engage with the crowd easier. Her vocals were strong and piercing, interacting playfully with the highs and lows and general tension the rest of the band provided. She tore through “The Rip” and prevented its slow pace from devolving into something that might have otherwise brought the set to a screeching halt. When the band got loud or harsh, as songs like “Threads” and “We Carry On” do, she always seemed to cut through the fray and act as a counterweight. Yet in spite of her warming presence amid icy melodies, Gibbons remained otherwise distant for much of the night, not really saying a word between songs and often turning away from the crowd during instrumental portions of some songs. The only point at which that gap was closed came courtesy of the final song of the night “We Carry On”, where during an extended outro she hopped off the stage and met the crowd at the barricade. It wasn’t quite crowd surfing, but the mental and physical breakdown of that wall seemed to be cathartic for everybody involved. Once that genie was let out of the bottle, there was no going back, which is probably why the band exited and the house lights came up immediately afterwards.

Choosing highlights from Portishead’s set is tough when everything they did was nothing short of excellent. Well except for the first half of “Mysterons”, where a malfunctioning speaker proved to be quite the annoyance. The extreme crackling was met with sheer disdain by the crowd, most of who began to shout in protest as it continued on for much of the song. Whether the bum speaker(s) was shut off or adjusted, a full recovery was eventually made, though the band either failed to notice or simply ignored it and continued to power through as if nothing had happened. Other than that, things went swimmingly. Essentials such as “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” remained vital and disturbing. Certainly one of the high, if not the highest point of the night came mid-set with “Wandering Star”. Reducing the band down to the core of Gibbons, Barrow and Utley, they radically reworked the track into an organic and slower-moving ballad rather than the eerie, electro-glitched toe-tapper classic. Gibbons’ vocal quivered through most of it as well, only adding to the quiet vulnerability of the song and keeping the crowd at full attention. It was an utterly fascinating choice to make, and one that proved just how immensely stimulating the band can be even when they break from their trademark sound.

In 90 minutes flat, Portishead was done. Over a decade of absence magically erased and bonds restored. Calling their influence drug-like is probably apt in this case. It was fascinating to see the sorts of people that turned out at the show, from a fresh generation of younger fans to a decidedly older crowd – most assuredly fans from the earlier period of their 20+ years together as a band. People with mohawks and people with comb overs may not have much in common, but the one thing they could all agree on Wednesday night was that Portishead put on one of the best shows of 2011 so far. If absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, here’s one band that’s playing their cards just right. Still, we can all hold out hope they don’t make us wait another 12 years before showing their faces in Chicago again.

Set List
The Rip
Sour Times
Magic Doors
Wandering Star
Machine Gun
Glory Box
Chase the Tear
We Carry On

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

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