Hello. My name is Vadim, and I’ve been a derelict blogger. I truly apologize; after filing my last column (2 MONTHS AGO!), it became increasingly obvious that running the next month’s gauntlet of wrapping up my undergraduate life forever, moving house (5 stops closer on the L! Woo!), and covering the Tribeca Film Festival would be hard enough without listening to anything but the same four albums over and over for comfort’s sake. (This mostly amounted to listening to the new, leaked Notwist a bunch, which was fab. More on this in the A.V. Club when it actually comes out.) Keith was kind enough to give me the time to tweak out on my own, and now I’m back (which is to say comfortably underemployed and reveling in it, at least for the moment). There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let me adopt a slightly superficial capsule mode for this round til we’re all caught up again:
Squeeze, Argybargy (1980): Let’s start here, if for no other reason than to wonder why no one copies these guys currently. Argybargy isn’t as rare now as when I first started trying to find it—a cheap copy went for about $15 four or so years ago—so eventually I just downloaded the sucker. Squeeze is generally considered a prototypical singles band—their collection Singles 45’s and Under is, in its way, about as essential as Singles Going Steady. Three songs are shared by Squeeze’s collection and this album (which you can find on BitTorrent in about five seconds)—indeed, the big problem is a total lack of momentum and cohesion. They really were a singles band, and it’s impossible to argue with the designated classics: the simultaneously revved-up and magisterial “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)”, whose slamming chord changes resolve the first round in a dominant fifth rather than the expected root (these are the kind of nerdy particulars that separate egghead pop songwriters like Squeeze and XTC from the enthusiastic punks); the supremely slippery “Another Nail In My Heart,” which runs through chord changes like a person with a cold goes through Kleenex; “If I Didn’t Love You,” whose furious fugal structure accumulates almost as much momentum as “Common People.” But just sticking to the singles would mean missing out on gems like “Separate Beds,” a (stereo)typically British courtship ending in a marriage disapproved of by both mothers (“She thought I was on drugs”), greeted with cheerful indifference by the dads (“I helped him fix his car”), and ending in a unconsummated night (“So we could be together/in separate beds tonight”).
What do I miss about Squeeze (or, more accurately, what do I see in a band that peaked before I was born that isn’t around today)? There’s two schools of thought about what makes a songwriter a “craftsman.” On the one hand, there’s the kind of person who goes around cheering on Burt Bacharach, believing that every chord change is a precious thing that should be used as carefully as possible. Then there’s bands like Squeeze, cheerfully maximalist and generous, which makes their music fresh and unexpected, free of rote blues staples: I’m for the latter camp, obviously. But Squeeze sounds light: weirdly, their closest contemporaries are either The Shins (whose second album was extremely light on ’80s production gloss, but had a hefty dose of energetic chord-changing to go with the acoustics) or The Fiery Furnaces (who coat a similarly light sound with plenty of occasionally gratuitous weirdness). Most bands now seem convinced that they have to back up twisty songs with a a distinctive production sound: I dig elaborate studio dicking-around as much as they next guy, but there’s something refreshing about hearing a band confident enough to believe that basic ’80s production techniques will serve them well enough, thanks. Sonically, Squeeze sound like their peers; melodically, they don’t really sound like anyone else.
These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid (2008): I don’t know why, but I’m oddly fond of these British idiots. Trafficking in an irritable, stop-start brand of post-punk close to Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party (you’d think they’d have worn this revival out in three years, but not even), TNP are separated from their peers by little more than a particularly obtuse approach to lyrics (mostly of the old-school Talking Heads art-school variety: “Numerology” asks “What’s your favorite number? What does it mean?” over and over before laying out a definition for 1-10: 7, e.g., is surrealism, for no good reason; “En Papier” explains, with menacing clarity, that if they ever have any ideas, they’ll be sure to write them down on paper) and a love for the kind of jagged album structure where proper songs are broken up by 13-second ambient washes, the whole thing too fragmentary to ever get a handle on. (It’s not that far off from Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity, honestly.) Why do I find these guys more entertaining than, say, Liars? No idea—they seem more playful, I guess (insofar as this kind of music, which is grimly opposed to hooks, choruses, verses, harmonies or any of the other staples of most pop), more energetic and less overthought.
Elbow, Leaders Of The Free World (2005): Caught up with this as prep for reviewing the band’s latest (which is also quite good). I remembered Elbow from Cast Of Thousands, an album I found vaguely irritating when it came out: the opening song (“Ribcage”) was a neat redemption of the usual cliched uplift that comes whenever a gospel choir is invited to pitch in, and “Not A Job” was very soothing, but a lot of the music seemed half-finished, the songs resisting obvious power-pop hooks (which was pretty much all I liked at the time anyway—I was unaware that British bands had the option of not participating in Britpop) in favor of five-minute rambles. Well, either they’ve grown or I have—“Leaders Of The Free World” may be the best song I’ve heard this year. A furious, deliberately seething number, “Leaders” acquires power incrementally: first acoustic guitar and handclaps, then vocals, then bass, then the bass goes one octave lower, etc.—all leading to a chorus almost big enough for a Pulp song. And if we must have anti-Bush protest songs, then “Passing the gun from father to feckless son” is as succinct a line as any. The sheer, self-loathing hatred of daily routine on display—“I’m just counting down the days til I die… and the sickest little pleasures keep me going pulling teeth”—is a furious mirror for the kind of cliched post-grad malaise I’m going through. Elbow’s biggest problem as a band is that they care fuck-all about their image; they look like Manchester blokes who would stand and nod approvingly on the sidelines while Liam Gallagher lectured people on “proper music.” But they’re not; they’re pretty great, as it turns out.
Tapes ’N Tapes, The Loon (2005): If you’ve ever spent time reading British music publications (I don’t recommend doing this, but I was fairly obsessed with NME for a while because their writing was so sharp, even if their opinions increasingly turned sour on me), you’ll remember that they’re create-and-destroy hype monsters who’ll champion anyone who shows up as the new Oasis one week and slag on them the next; their turnover rate is as bad as McDonald’s. I frequently get the feeling that the American indie scene is operating much the same way these days. There’s been a lot of blather in various music mags about how blogs are destroying band’s development times; when Spin ran their cover story on Vampire Weekend, they had to be pre-emptively defensive: “they know their unprecedented rise—Vampire Weekend are, for example, the first band ever to be shot for a Spin cover before they’d even released an album—inevitably makes them a target of the very same machine that brought them this recognition,” Andy Greenwald wrote, “influential music blogs that champion unsigned, unheralded acts, only to turn their backs once those acts become signed and heralded.”
I’m pretty sure this will pass—there’s only so many Best Band Ever(s) that can be championed a week before people will get tired of this game—but something more dangerous, I think, is the myth of the sophomore slump. Tradition (or, more accurately, cliche) has it that a band/musician has their whole life to write a first album, then rushes an inferior follow-up in months. (I’d argue that a chance to hammer out one’s ideas in the studio and up your game live could only be a good thing for development, but what do I know.) And this idea somehow persists even when a band takes three years to release a follow-up. Listen up people: Walk It Off is the exact same album as The Loon, just a little denser and deeper on the production tip. I’d actually never listened to them before I had to review the follow-up; both albums are a pleasurable wallow in a tangled strain of messy guitar-rock. Pretending that they’re any different is just a knee-jerk “Oh, I’m tired of this now” response. (OK, the back half is a little weaker, but not nearly as much as the reviews pretend, and certainly not enough to generate reversal-of-fortune disdain.) It’s not as if the world we live in has made T’nT so ubiquitous that they’re sickening—and if you somehow live a life where that’s true, you really need to get out more.
Consequence, Don’t Quit Your Day Job (2007): The failure of Consequence’s proper debut album, while not exactly tragic, at least qualifies as puzzling and annoying. Of course, any rapper releasing his first album at 30 is courting irrelevance and dismissal, much less with an album thematically centered, in large part, around how annoying working at Banana Republic is. Still, there was every reason to expect the album to perform respectably—the fourth release from Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label followed the commercial barn-stormers of John Legend’s first two albums and Common’s unexpected (and frankly unwelcome) return to commercial prominence. But it bricked, getting out of the gate with some 7,000 units sold in the first week, eventually eking out 140,000 total—par for the course for the struggling rap industry, but you’d figure Kanye’s muscle would be enough to convince the American public to buy the unlikeliest stuff. (Again.)
A loose concept album, the first third focuses on trying to balance the day-to-day minimum-wage grind with rap-star dreams. A series of (kind of rote) romantic songs later, our hero’s Uncle Raheim arrives to crash for a few days, and Consequence frets about dealing with the parole officer and preventing theft. The dick-waving “Grammy Family” and a few tracks later, we’ve been taken through one young rapper’s journey from just another dreaming drudge to commercial success (rendering the album’s ultimate real-world failure that much more ironic). Consequence should be filed alongside the most-excellent Rhymefest, another Kanye associate whose Blue Collar sadly flopped a couple of years ago. Consequence isn’t in the same league as Rhymefest—who’s both a better technician and has a more nuanced persona—because he’s often allured by his own word arrangements to make them say anything outstanding content-wise. The stand-out “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”—featuring Kanye himself—is a joyous victory lap, benefitting from the sheer momentum generated by Consequence’s unstoppable flow; better than most rappers, he seems to understand the spaces generated inside Kanye’s samples, how to position himself around the ghostly voices. As on his guest appearance on Kanye’s “Gone” (where he used “gone” in a different context in every line, the track is breathlessly ingenious in re-using the same three words over and over—maybe not saying much with them, but saying it very cleverly indeed. I favor blunter content, frankly, but Consequence still deserves champions and attention.
Atlas Sound, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008): My theory about Bradford Cox is that he’s filling in the charisma void missing from indie rock; otherwise, he’d be nowhere near semi-famous. As frontman for Deerhunter, Cox made the band’s live reputation by wearing dresses over his tall, gaunt physique and scaring the shit out of the crowd; when I saw them last summer, he spent about half of the performance with what looked like the kind of hanging decorations you see over babies’ cribs dangling from his hand. Deerhunter are a sporadically inspired band, but I doubt they’d ever leave the noise-rock ghetto if Cox hadn’t galvanized their rep. He can also be a PR trainwreck, giving nasty interviews where he names someone by name as “a fucking bitch,” then has to publicly recant. Whether Cox’s genius for false controversy and stunts is unconscious or as coolly calculated as Malcolm McLaren’s remains to be seen (I suspect the former, not that it matters); in the meantime, Cox’s solo project is equally compelling: blah in proportion. With none of Deerhunter’s aggression, this is trippy ambient stuff that sounds like it’s broadcasting live from the brain of someone going pastoral while doped up on prescription meds and anti-allergens. This has the side-effect of making everything pretty much the same: whether chopping up screechy guitars or hoe-down fiddles, everything is looped, warped and narcotic. I guess I just prefer my ambient music unambiguously electronic, though people who aren’t bothered by tracks being indistinguishable from one another over the course of an hour (this isn’t just an ambient mental block I have—I’d lodge the same protest against latter-day Aimee Mann) may have more fun with it.
Why?, Alopecia) (2008): Serving belated, cursory notice that yes, I listened to this much-acclaimed wonder (recommended by many musically like-minded friends) and don’t really get it. The music is quite gorgeous, but the depression stops being clever half-way through and I wonder, if I’d just been a smidgen more articulate, if I could’ve gotten similar props for my self-loathing in high school. But we’ll never know now, will we?
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.