How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, doesn’t make music that’s easy to listen to or enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. That can also be considered part of his charm though, that he doesn’t bow to anyone’s standards. There are influences, that’s to be sure, and you could hear flashes of Bobby Brown or Michael Jackson in some of the tracks on HTDW’s 2010 debut album Love Remains. Those influences were filtered through Krell’s unique lens, and there was such a lo-fi, effect-laden treatment to everything that it often felt like you were listening to an R&B record underwater. Krell’s falsetto vocals also tended to sound like they were recorded from the opposite side of a room, the distance providing a chasm of disconnection against the intimacy of the lyrics. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything else, as we’d later come to find out that his struggles with depression have often kept his family and friends at arm’s length. That more or less informs how the new HTDW record Total Loss functions, although this time the production work has become more polished and easier to listen to. Krell is also much more up-front and personal this time too, and it makes for an open wound of a record that’s an emotional wrecking ball with a heavy dose of beautiful composition. The R&B flavor is still present on this album, but it’s a little more scaled back and minimalist in terms of composition. There are plenty more icy textures that glide and drift past instead of big beats and vocal posturing. If you’re expecting a bunch of “Ready for the World” clones to create clear highlights across this album, you will probably end up sorely disappointed. There are tracks like “Cold Nites” and “& It Was You” that are some of the most fascinating and complex pieces Krell has ever put together, and while their melodies affixed with accoutrements like finger snaps and intense vocal harmonies may have a lighthearted air to them, the lyrics are anything but. Where this record truly excels though are in the moments when atmosphere truly takes over and beauty shines through. There are post rock symphonic bits like “World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You (Proem)” and “Talking to You” that cut so deeply while saying so little that you halfway expect Krell to turn into Sigur Ros at times. That’s a very good thing, and it shows plenty of promise for his future records. Then again, those same sorts of elements were all over last year’s Just Once EP, and they’re only minimally represented on Total Loss. In a sense, the mixture of different styles on this record can make it seem less than cohesive at times, and the lack of important benchmarks across the whole thing can leave it feeling a little front-loaded. This isn’t a perfect album, nor does it quite accomplish the great things Love Remains was able to do. What truly holds this record together in spite of everything are the lyrics, which tend to devastate at every turn. But while this record weaves its way through darkness, the end starts to shine some light through in a powerful and meaningful way. “Set It Right,” in which Krell names the many friends and family members both living and dead that he’s loved and cared for in spite of everything, is probably the most important track on the entire record. “As far as love goes, it’s one step at a time,” he sings like somebody hoping to rebuild a long dead or dormant connection. With any luck, this album marks yet another step in the right direction for How to Dress Well.
Tag: weird pop
As with so many collaborations betweem famous musicians, having David Byrne and St. Vincent working together seems like a great idea on paper. In many ways, you can envision Byrne as a mentor to Annie Clark, a guiding spirit who’s been through the ringer a time or two with the Talking Heads and other projects, taking a talented young prodigy and trying to mold her on a path towards legendary success. Lord knows he doesn’t need the career boost and could probably get away with playing his classic songs for the rest of his life. Certainly Byrne’s work with Brian Eno has been the most highly regarded of his collaborations, with 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts being just the sort of strange, boundary-pushing effort to inspire a whole new generation of artists. He’s made plenty of great records since then, though arguably nothing will ever quite match his streak of greatness in the ’80s. As for clark, her ever-evolving sound has only become more potent with time, and the latest St. Vincent album Strange Mercy reaches a new peak of her songwriting and guitar skills. She doesn’t really need any favors either at this point, though the opportunity to work with Byrne is one that few smart artists would pass up.
But maybe it is that lack of necessity that makes their album together Love This Giant so comfortable and safe. Instead of taking the license of such a project and running wild with sonic experiments, what we get instead are concise pop songs punched up with a backing brass band. Such a lack of liberty would be more forgivable if the songs themselves were more compelling and memorable, but unfortunately that’s not the case either. The album’s opening song and first single “Who” is actually a very encouraging start, though it is less addictive and inspired than Byrne’s last big single with Brian Eno, 2008’s “Strange Overtones.” A less apparent highlight on the record is “Weekend in the Dust,” taking a canned beat and the funky horn section and turning them into a melody that feels rooted in ’80s or ’90s funk or R&B. It represents a markedly different approach for Clark, and even her halting Janet Jackson-esque lead vocals don’t sound like anything she’s done before. It’s the sort of boundary pushing this album could have used more of. Actually, it’s probably more of Clark’s take on some of Byrne’s known sounds, which then makes it a shame when he doesn’t really adopt much of her creative guitar work. In fact, her guitar is either absent or put behind brass for virtually the entire record, which is like having a million dollars stored in a safe at home but refusing to spend a dime of it even though you’re in debt. “The Forest Awakes” is about as guitar-heavy as this record gets, and even that provides meager offerings.
Yet it’s still Clark that comes off best on Love This Giant, and whether that has to do with songwriting, melody or general enthusiasm for the project is up for debate. Byrne mostly sounds bored, almost like he’s run out of things to say. Instead of using “I Should Watch TV” as a clever way to comment on today’s pop culture, he uses it to analyze exactly why he’s compelled to do as the song title suggests. You could say that it’s a noble search for deeper meaning, but the melody suggests a playfulness that’s simply not present otherwise. While the brass backing band is something of a bolder choice for both artists involved, one of the real tragedies is how whitewashed and bland they come off sounding. That’s especially true on tracks like “Dinner For Two” and “Lazarus,” both of which could use a little extra pep in their step and injections of instrumental creativity. Thanks to an additional assist from Antibalas and The Dap-Kings, “The One Who Broke Your Heart” is a surprising late album treat and probably the best use of brass on the entire record.
A large part of the disconnect on Love This Giant, instrumental and otherwise, probably stems from how it was pieced together. Recorded over three years in a variety of studios with files passed back and forth between Byrne and Clark, you can sort of tell that not everybody was in the same room or studio when this was created. Such are the potential perils of long distance collaboration. Inspired as this team up sounded initially, both Byrne and St. Vincent have done and will do bigger and better things down the line. Perhaps if they decide to do this again, as Byrne has done with Eno, things will turn out much differently and for the better.
Animal Collective have put themselves in an extremely tough spot. They dared to make a great album, and vastly succeeded in doing so. 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion became the poster child for psychedelic pop music, and it was at or near the top of virtually every year-end “best of” list. As recently as last month, the album claimed the #8 spot on Pitchfork’s People’s List, a poll voted on by close to 28,000 readers. It took the band nine albums and nine years to finally find that sweet spot in their music. Great as success might be, the expectations that bloom from it are anything but easy to handle. Do you try and build upon the things you’ve done before, stay in a holding pattern by trying something similar, or go off the grid altogether and hope for the best? Anyone that’s listened to enough Animal Collective over the years knows they don’t pander to an audience and they don’t sit still. They don’t even know what or where the “grid” is.
In many ways, their courage to always try new and different things is admirable. There’s brilliance in the unknown, and somebody’s got to go looking for it. The problem is you can take a lot of wrong turns along the way. Animal Collective have fared better than most, because even when their songs sound positively nuts, there’s still that slight pop sensibility that keeps them grounded. Jumping through their catalogue, it’s a little tough to find a lot of similarities between Here Comes the Indian (2003), Feels (2005) and Strawberry Jam (2007).Where they are similar is that all of them are very good albums, and all are challenging to a multitude of unique degrees. It’s not hard to understand why the band failed to gain a large audience in the pre-MPP years, even as they jumped record labels from the smaller Fat Cat to the larger Domino in 2007. Taking three years and keeping many music obsessives waiting patiently for a follow-up, Centipede Hz is what they’ve finally handed over. Whatever your expectations are, don’t think for a second that they’ll be met.
One of the main things worth noting about Centipede Hz is that multi-instrumentalist Deakin has rejoined Animal collective after taking an extended break back in 2007. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much or how little of an impact he’s had on the band over the years, but his absence from the last album may have played some part in its success. That’s not meaning to suggest Deakin is a harmful presence, but rather a catalyst that caused Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist to rethink their approach to songwriting and composition at least a little bit. Sometimes less is more. In the case of the new album, the sentiment turns out to be the exact opposite. Virtually every song is jam-packed with sonic dissonance, and with so much going on it’s tough to know what to focus on at any given time. Some would call it layered and practical, rewarding multiple listens by giving you new elements to explore each run through. While it does become easier to penetrate the more you listen to it, this album forgets the one key that has made Animal Collective such a compelling band over the years – patience. They used to grow their songs slowly, adding more parts and elements until you’re left wondering how you wound up so buried in sound. The cacophony of opening tracks “Moonjock” and “Today’s Supernatural” don’t build to anything. They start with the dam already broken and millions of gallons of water bearing down on you. It’s overwhelming if you haven’t battened down the hatches in anticipation.
Animal Collective also used to have the “freak folk” descriptor attached to their name, a label that was justified for their emphasis on acoustic guitars with a splattering of odd time signatures and polyrhythms. Listen to an old song like “Leaf House” off of Sung Tongs to get a fair grasp of what that sounded like. Their movement away from guitars and towards synths and electronic textures changed things a bit, but it also gave the band a better lower end with some severely heavy bass that cranked up the danceability factor of their music. Take “Peacebone” from Strawberry Jam as an example. By contrast, virtually all of Centipede Hz sounds thin because it ignores that heft and replaces some of the bass and rhythm parts with bells and whistles and other random sounds that all stay in the shallow end. “New Town Burnout” and “Rosie Oh” both skitter by without ever bringing the sort of boom they might otherwise deserve. Even tracks like “Mercury Man” and “Amanita” where you can hear things that are almost definitively bass drums and guitars don’t impact and rattle speakers the way they should. The effect may be intentional though, designed to mimic the effect of listening to the radio on tinny speakers. The mixture of varying radio broadcasts which serve as interstitial moments between tracks and give fluidity to the record seem to support this theory. Is that sort of a move necessary on an album like this? Not really, but who knows what goes through these guys’ heads as they piece together songs.
Maybe one of the main points of Centipede Hz is to push you into liking it, because at their heart these are really simple psych-pop songs dirtied up by a lot of challenging excess. The more you listen to it, the better you can process all of it. That doesn’t make the songs good though. Some of them just sort of wander without much purpose or direction, or take detours down paths that otherwise betray strong melodies. “Wide Eyed” and “Father Time” are both guilty of this, and they sit right at the center of the record. The former is surprisingly straightforward and bouncy, but overstays its welcome and has some so-so vocal work from Deakin. The latter is just utterly forgettable. On an album with so many distinguishing moments for better or worse, it stands as a shrug-worthy effort that even the rather slow and boring “New Town Burnout” doesn’t stoop to minutes later. After pointing out so many apparent flaws, it’s important to note that there are a bunch of very good to great moments on Centipede Hz too. Besides the opening two tracks that have their charms, “Applesauce” has some weirdly great energy going for it, as does the closer “Amanita.” The powerhouse cut of this album though is “Monkey Riches,” a nearly seven minute freak out that comes across like a breath of fresh air. If Animal Collective had done the entire record using that song as an inspirational point, we would have another Merriweather Post Pavilion on our hands, but in a different sort of way that likely would have stood up well amidst their varied catalogue.
You can’t really say that Centipede Hz is a bad record. It’s bad by Animal Collective standards, which are heights that are tough for almost every other artist to reach. If you’re in search of an entry point and a way to ease into the band’s world, this isn’t it by a long shot. But that also raises a great point about these guys: no matter which of their albums you listen to, you’ll never think it’s another band. They may have jumped from acoustic guitars to thumping beats to sound effects and radio snippets in the last dozen years, but they’ve always retained a challenging conceptual sonic structure uniquely their own. There’s comfort in that, even when they release something that might be considered subpar. So they’ve finally hit a creative speedbump, which more than anything else has been a long time coming. Consider this also a way to temper excitement for whatever they’re going to do next. Not that they ever felt any pressure before. At least fans won’t be expecting another miracle. The greatest and best hope you can have is that Animal Collective remain Animal Collective. Everything else is a proverbial roll of the dice.
If you took Jello Biafra from his Dead Kennedys heyday and put him into a band that plays distorted and weird renditions of AM Gold sounds of the ’60s, you’d come reasonably close to what Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti are all about. While Ariel Pink never goes for the throaty yelp and ferocity that Biafra often had during those times, his strange perception of the world around him often pushes his vocals to take on different personalities and affectations. Simultaneously you’re also stuck with the challenge of trying to determine if Pink is actually being sincere or not. He cracks a lot of jokes and sings a lot of nonsense, many times in voices that sound dismissive or idiotic, yet there are also love songs that often have tenderness and genuine emotion attached to them. The many flights of fancy that suit his variety of whims at any given moment can make listening to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti records a very difficult task, if not a chore. It’s almost always fascinating if you can stand it, and on occasion he’ll hit on something truly brilliant, such as the song “Round and Round” off of 2010’s Before Today. There was little funny about that song, but its hooks cut so deep they could leave scars on your ears if you weren’t careful. Such is the dichotomy of the man and the band behind him. Nothing on their new album Mature Themes ever hits the way you might want or expect it to, but if it did then it wouldn’t be a proper APHG record. If you’re looking for the most oddly engaging record of 2012, congratulations you’ve found it.
One of the smartest things you can do when listening to Mature Themes is to surrender your will and control and simply let it take you where it wants to go. Questioning a shift in direction or a lyric will leave you frustrated time and time again, because so much of it fails to make sense. Pink is operating on his own level here, and whether you think that’s above or below your own is irrelevant. Lines like, “The bad breath of a cross-eyed goat/ Eating children for a Monday morning,” on “Driftwood” aren’t supposed to make sense (to us at least), just like how “Schnitzel Boogie” stops mid-song so Pink can place an order at a drive-thru. “Is This the Best Spot?” is like some mad science experiment gone awry, bouncing between G-spots, H-bombs and a Rocky Horror-esque reference to time warps in under two minutes. And as you sit there scratching your head about what planet the guy is living on, songs like first single “Only in My Dreams” and the title track come in with some earnest folk-pop you might have gotten from Simon & Garfunkel or The Beach Boys. Of course the bipolar and challenging nature of this album isn’t anything really new for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. They’ve been releasing records steadily over the last 10 or so years that carry a whole lot of similarities to what they’re putting out now, only the quality, fidelity and exposure has improved over time. Before Today was the band’s first album on 4AD and their first to feature clear studio recording. They also simplified and blended their various eccentricities more than ever before to create something more easily digestible than ever before. Mature Themes is by contrast both a step forward and a step backward. The band sounds more polished than ever, but the strangeness is back in its fullest effect. In some respects it’s serving to weed out the new set of fans that have discovered the band in recent years, trying to scare them away from a good thing. But if you find Pink’s oddball sensibilities gripping, there’s more than a fair share of reasons to keep paying attention. On the song “Early Birds of Babylon,” Pink keeps asking, “Hey, how does he do that?” Listening through this record, you’ll likely find yourself asking that same question of Pink over and over again.