I know I keep coming up with constant excuses for this column’s (to put it politely) somewhat irregular publishing schedule, but this one I need to make. Briefly: The Onion A.V. Club is in the thick of its year-end process, which meant I just couldn’t pass up the chance to make a year-end top 10. I just couldn’t; it’s an addiction. So maybe my A.V. Club list and my list here will be markedly different; perhaps not (it’s been a weak year and I don’t imagine many more surprises cropping up). In any case, I’ve been cramming like a guilty high-school student on 2008 releases; notes below represent things I was thinking about intensely a month/month-and-a-half ago. Please accept the mental distance; soon enough I’ll be catching up on everything that ostensibly matters musically about 2008.
Here’s the thing about The Broken West: they’re one of the most derivative bands working today. They have no ideas of their own. They never met a Big Star track they didn’t like, except for maybe “Holocaust.” Am I being clear enough in explaining why I like them? Their 2007 debut I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On was a huge guilty pleasure for me, ridiculous titular Beckett allusion and all. Back then, I shamefacedly wrote out my qualifications with more conviction than I felt, and they’re all still true: “sneering lead singers who assert themselves like American Gallagher brothers ... no breathing room except for ballads ... don’t have a whole lot on their mind besides, you know, girls and place-holder lyrics ... consciously anti-intellectual…They’re not clever, but they’re satisfying.” This was an oblique (OK, trying to avoid chastisement for my taste) way of saying that I listened to their album way too many times, and I’m not real sure why. There’s a lot of filler there: looking on the track-listing a little over a year later, I can’t remember what half of it sounds like, and re-visiting tracks like “You Can Build An Island” or “Brass Ring” isn’t really helping.
The reason I’m revisiting them: they were the only great thing I saw at CMJ. Granted, I didn’t get out a whole hell of a lot (other bands seen: The Browns, The Muslims, Wye Oke, Portastatic). Still, I was in a really bad mental headspace, which was compounded by the fact that I find most shows to be more trouble than they’re worth. The Broken West’s performances of “On The Bubble” and “Down In The Valley” gave me six minutes of visceral, head-thrashing, non-thinking joy, and if I’m doing better now, I owe them at least a little debt of thanks. (This despite the fact that The Broken West apparently read the same guide to being an LA band everyone else did and wear the same stupid neck-length hair and pseudo-rock-star button-down shirts as every other goddamn LA buzz band. They can still play.)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t really want to pan their new album Now Or Heaven. The press kit announces that the band felt the need to tear it up and start over from rhythms rather than guitars; this basically means the album is all treble and no bass. For a band wanting to bring the retro-hooks, this is not a particularly satisfying approach. There’s a lot of skittery machines and pseudo-electronics that provide tentative rhythms, which isn’t particularly satisfying; the songs play better live, with the drums giving enough muscle to melodies that aren’t as ridiculously big as before but still get the job done. Lyrics are cursory; the best song is probably “Ambuscade,” which announces “these are ruthless people,” which probably means this is yet another song about how awful the music industry is, which is about as meaty a topic as The Broken West can touch without lapsing into cliche. The rest is inoffensive and unmemorable. Props to The Broken West for not resting on their laurels, but what a way to go about it: ditching all your assets for experimentation that isn’t even that experimental. Next time, guys; still love the show.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about Prodigy’s album H.N.I.C. Part 2. Like last year’s Return Of The Mac, it’s good for three spins and little more aside from a few stand-out tracks. Last year, the stand-out tracks were mostly courtesy of Alchemist’s production, and while he and associate Sid Roams still do a good job running things (Roams gets first single “ABC,” which has a bunch of little kids singing the alphabet, leading to an oddly Boards Of Canada-type effect), that’s not really the point.
H.N.I.C. Part 2 comes down to three tracks. The record’s most anomalous is “Veterans Memorial Part 2,” which induced a Pavlovian response in me from its opening chipmunk vocals and soul strings; Prodigy drops the kill-you-for-no-reason bullshit for a second and tells a predictable litany of street reprisals, jail terms and unnecessary deaths with poignancy and original details: there’s a killer out there, sure, but at one point a man kills people for no reason (he can give and take it—he gets shot in the head, goes home and takes the bullet out himself), goes to jail, “came home Muslim,” and two months later is at it again. That version I hadn’t heard before. Prodigy also unsentimentally remembers his dad teaching him how to rob a jewelry store—who knows if it’s true, but he’s a convincing narrator anyway.
But the really compelling and fucked-up stuff comes on two conspiracy-track numbers. The album kicks off with “Real Power Is People”; it starts with the usual kill-protect-get rich nonsense, in convincingly threatening but slightly dull fashion. Then suddenly Prodigy has some unusual images to drop: “Pedophiles rape little kids for energy / Satanic rituals, WTC (RIP) / They lit the Pentagon on fire / That’s lighting the pentagram on fire.” The first time I heard this, I sat bolt upright and started paying extra-close attention. “Wow,” I wondered, “has Prodigy just found a completely irresponsible but effective persona to grab my attention with? Or does he really believe this, in which case he’s gone completely insane?”
Let’s be clear: even when Prodigy was deep in Mobb Deep’s heyday, he never seemed like our most responsible citizen; when he got arrested for possession of a weapon (for the third time) and sent to jail for three and a half years, it sort of made sense. Prodigy’s lawyers may well be on firm ground when they claim he’s being shaken down by the NYPD hip-hop squad, but I still only half-believe everything Prodigy says. But this is a whole new level of crazy. On “Illuminati,” he merely claims that one of the conspiracy theorists’ favorite is out for him: “Illuminati want my mind, soul and body.” Up until now, I didn’t know that Prodigy and my conspiracy-theory-minded dad had anything in common; I’m sure it would be a nasty shock to them both.
As Prodigy’s infamous prison blogs confirm, he’s not joking. Check out installment #3, the bluntly titled” RITUALISTIC MURDER”. Prodigy begins nice and easy with a few reasoned words about 9/11 (“THERE WERE BOMBS GOING OFF ON JUST ABOUT EVERY FLOOR AND THAT’S THE ONLY THING THAT CAUSED THE TOWERS TO COLLAPSE SO PERFECTLY IN DEMOLITION FORMATION.”) Then he gets to the Pentagon: “THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS THE FACT THAT THE PENTAGON WAS SET ON FIRE, THEY’VE ACTUALLY SET A PENTAGRAM ON FIRE. ONLY SATANIC WORSHIPPERS SET PENTAGRAMS ON FIRE, WHEN THEY PRACTICE THEIR RITUALS.”
After some more talk of energy lines, the investigative work of Alex Jones (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and so on, he finally gets around to telling where all the missing children are going: “PEOPLE I’M SORRY TO SAY BUT 95% OF THESE MILLIONS OF MISSING CHILDREN ARE BEING USED AS A PART OF THESE ELITE SOCIETIES DEMONIC AND SATANIC RITUALS. THEY ARE BEING SEXUALLY MOLESTED BECAUSE IN THESE IN THESE SATANIC RITUALS WHEN THEY MOLEST A CHILD THEY’RE CONJURING UP A NEGATIVE ENERGY. ... NOT ONLY ARE THESE MISSING CHILDREN BEING USED AS SEXUAL TOOLS IN SATAN WORSHIP, BUT THEY’RE ALSO BEING EATEN AS A PART OF THESE VERY SAME RITUALS.” He also cites Hannibal. You get the idea. Every track has been “researched”; this is no longer just an album.
Where Prodigy is going with this (I won’t take you any more of the long way) is a very freaky version of black nationalism where white people invent power structures to oppress the Muslim nation or whatever. And while all this is pretty absurd from where I sit, it’s good to hear it. I’m sort of thinking like this: I like to read The New York Times and Dirty Harry’s Place back to back, so that I can read what seems like a reasonable perspective on the world, only to have my brain cleansed with a right-wing lunacy so strident I know it represents a perspective I’d never encounter otherwise in a few sharp, short blasts. (I also enjoy the site because, when not waxing political, Dirty Harry wants to do things like pay tribute to Dana Andrews; ain’t nothing wrong with that.) Listening to Prodigy as opposed to pretty much any other rapper with mainstream recognition—even the devout Lupe Fiasco—is a quick clue to certain avenues of life I will never be invited into, because I’m probably the enemy. Condoning it is beside the point; I’m just intrigued it exists. Besides, like Prodigy really gives a fuck what I think. I wonder what he thinks of Obama.
Like The Walkmen, TV On the Radio are a wildly-acclaimed band every bit as obsessed as what they should sound like as how their songs are constructed. And, like The Walkmen, they’ve just had their breakthrough moment. Not to get all “I was there,” but the brief year that I subscribed to Magnet Magazine, I was briefly insanely dedicated to trying to download sample MP3s of every single band they featured in any capacity, whether in one of their excellent features, the (mostly overwritten) album capsule reviews, and especially the full-page glossy buzz artists who’d get a color photo and a brief write-up. Most fell into the ether, but TV On the Radio had their shot at the moment they were passing through Austin on what I presume was one of their first national touring-laps. At a small in-store at the now sadly defunct 33 Degree Records they were pretty thrilling, running through erratic sound conditions in a way that was improvisatory and engaged, making up plausible songs on the spot. Their trademark empty spaces and drones weren’t in place.
I was mostly annoyed by their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes: now they had a sound, but that sound seemed calculated to resist every pop pleasure that didn’t involve going a capella. No harmonies or complexities, just reverb and lots of droning; not droning in the sense that some bands embrace full-on, just straight lines that reveled in a sound rather than song. 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain was a step up—producer Dave Sitek came into his own, and the album did more in its first thirty seconds to harmonically stun than the entirety of its predecessor—but the last half degenerated into 8-minute jams going nowhere in particular besides the mixing board.
So, of course, I waited forever to get into this year’s Dear Science, because all I was told was that they’d gone pop, which is what everyone said about their last album, which was only relatively true. Within thirty seconds, they’ve hit clarity: “Halfway Home” opens with one chord being hammered at by the full band, but then suddenly Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals go for a perfect ba-ba-ba equidistant from The Beach Boys and The Ramones. This means two things: that TV On the Radio, having gotten their sound down perfectly, feel free to reference other bands now, and also that they’re comfortable giving you a pop song without feeling all guilty about it. “Dancing Choose” kind of sounds like Barenaked Ladies, I swear to god, but a lot of the album is accessible relative. Kyp Malone’s tracks tend to be a little tricksier, imagining (I know this is a really hackneyed reference point, but I honestly feel it’s justifiable) a world in which the Talking Heads didn’t drop the polyrhythmic experiments but went even further, instructing pizzicato violins to join in. All of which is admirable and interesting to listen to, but the standout track for me is also, typically, the least overtly ambitious. “Family Tree” is 5 1/2 minutes built upon a few simple elements amplified to infinity: a string quartet, a piano whose simple depressed chords echo over and over, and various production frills that use almost ineffable moments to swell everything up. It’s hard to tell exactly what it’s all about, but there’s a general sense of a pathologically damaged family (“in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree”), something I can always get behind.
TV On the Radio are now meeting me 75% of the way there, in that they’ve given me one gorgeous (but not overly sentimental) song for late nights and a bunch of intellectually interesting songs that kind of get my blood pumped and kind of are just cerebrally intriguing without collapsing into drones. I’ll take it.
Grand Archives is as fun a band to listen to as they are boring to write about. Their self-titled debut was respectfully received and promptly forgotten, but this Band of Horses defection deserves at least as much attention as their last album. Seemingly misremembering Howard Hawks, Grand Archives offer up three great songs and no bad ones. Opener “Torn Foam Blue Couch” offers up their vision of unostentious maximalism. Where Band of Horses aim to be an old-school rock band, using only the core instruments at maximum reverbed volume, Grand Archives summon up a slow-building storm from, at first, nothing more than a tambourine, a harp and a boy-girl duo. By the end, the whole band’s in, the drums are pounding, horns have shown up somewhere along the way, and—in time-honored rock fashion—someone’s hitting the same piano octave over and over again.
None of the songs go anywhere surprising, but they get there with confidence, deliberation and consistent skill. The three knock-outs: “A Setting Sun,” a twangy stretch with a surprisingly bouncy chorus. The epic “Sleepdriving” (at 5:20, easily the longest track), the only track that seeks intensity. (NB: there’s something wrong with the version in this video.) Beginning with an urgent guitar-picking riff, “Sleepdriving” settles into a grim but pretty verse (it sounds like one of Elliott Smith’s angrier moments) before an unexpected string bridge comparable to The Shins’ similar one in “Saint Simon,” whose arrangement crawls over the rest of the song. “The Crime Window” sounds kinda like a wussier bar band, which is cool too. (Preferable really.) Predictable but very well-crafted, Grand Archives is my guilty pleasure of the year for the sheer margin between actual merit and number of times played (it’s one of my ten most played bands for the last three months). Not exactly slept-on, but undervalued all the same.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.