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21 May 2012

Destroyer - 'City of Daughters' (Tinker/Cave Canem)

I don't have the privilege of seeing the Soundscan figures, but I'd guess that latest Destroyer album at the time of this writing, Kaputt, had to be his biggest selling. Maybe I should actually say biggest 'hit' because popularity probably has little connection these days to actually 'moving units' or whatever they used to say. I feel like everywhere I go nowadays, I encounter some kid playing it through laptop speakers. Good for Bejar, cause he's been churning out great music for a long time and I'm happy for him to find an audience, even if I'm personally yet to click with KaputtCity of Daughters is from the other end of his career - it's not his first album but his first really good one. This is almost as stripped-down as his debut, based mostly around acoustic guitar and voice, though with some Emax synthesiser interludes and a nice backing band here and there. The Emax interludes aren't just filler - 'Emax II' is a lovely bit of electroacoustic residue.  It's tough for me to write about Destroyer as I find him to be the Canadian indie-rock reincarnation of Wallace Stevens - difficult as all-fuck to 'explain' but more than easy to be moved by. The musical cadences are the bonus that Mr. Bejar has over Mr. Stevens, so there's added non-meaning through emphasis and catchiness. For example, 'I Want This Cyclops' is a wonderful jaunty ride, but it's something about two sisters on a plane and an actual saskwatch with one eye, and the fuck if I can figure it out. But that's modernism at it's best - I can put my own meaning into things, and I've done that a lot. Maybe I just like singing along about the 'new heretical dawn'. Did I mention I love Destroyer? I've been immersed in his work since Streethawk: A Seduction, which we'll get to soon enough on the CD blog, and I've always seen City of Daughters, Thief, and Streehawk as a trilogy even though there's not much to link them besides a similar sound in the backing bands (though the lineups aren't consistent). This is a less ambitious Destroyer - before the big production of This Night, the midi experiments of Your Blues, the temporary 'return to form' of Rubies and of course Kaputt's 80's disco coke gloss. But again, what makes these records so different? The lyrics are always great, so it really comes down to my own personal tastes - I like the simplicity of songs like 'School, And the Girls Who Go There' more - they're somewhere in-between coffeeshop troubadour and indie pick-up band. Jennifer's halter top is a consecrated altar, after all. Like Queen, he actually saved the title track for his next album. This also has 'No Cease Fires! (Crimes Against the State of Our Love, Baby)' which should have been a smash hit anthem in an alternate universe (how many times do I type those words in these pages?). It's a confident record, a real portrait of a Canadian 1996 at least as I imagine it, and the start of something great.

20 May 2012

Deerhunter - 'Halcyon Digest' (4AD)

A disturbing, matte cover. White vinyl. Many typefaces. Sadness lingers, sticky from the residue of Microcastle just a few hours earlier. When it bounces, it bounces, but I keep going back to brittle suburban concrete, the sounds of parking lots strewn with tire streaks. Darkness always doesn't make much sense, or is it since? So many typefaces in conflict, but that's the errant afterthought of language which flows through this and so many other Cox-penned platters; words blow across this parking lot, carefully chosen as they are, and different bits stick. Bright lights, dim glows; it's not a contradiction. Memory is everywhere - it seeps through the cracks in the guitar arpeggios, dripping down like oil over every surface. Explicitly called in titles and lyrics, but that's always been there. Let's leave the death trip behind for the real pain is in living. Or something likethat. And yet this is done with so many major key uplifts, the delicate taste of building soundramps, a band coming together to create a vision with less reliance on the wet, processed soups and a strange drive towards, well, accessibility. It's not just a teenage nostalgia at play here; it's movies, shot on super-8, of dusty rooms slightly out of focus, with no people to be seen. There's an absence of affect at times, despite the strains of emotion in the voice ('Basement Scene')!  And when it's pointed - 'He Would Have Laughed', dedicated to Jay Reatard who after all covered 'Fluorescent Grey' so brilliantly - the loss is just all the more bigger, cast over with a withdrawn pallor. Halcyon it is, the next great step forward. The 'other guy' wrote two songs here, and my god are they great - 'Fountain Stairs' rings out like complex bubblegum, magic and delicate. It's Deerhunter at their best, and perhaps their masterpiece they'll never top. But I wait.

Deerhunter - 'Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.' (Kranky)

I fell in love with Microcastle while falling asleep to it every night on earphones, during a tumultuous period of my own life. Bradford Cox's subtle songs really spoke to me then - I began to imagine deep rivers of melancholy underneath what would otherwise be simple, even gothy lyrics. This is a 'mellow' album, akin to low-key classics like Mekons Journey to the End of the Night or Big Star's third album. That's not to say Deerhunter doesn't function as the exploratory rock band they established themselves as in previous releases - especially on side 2 - but that there's less of a bass-led groove here, and this is a record more concerned with melody, lyrics and texture than jamming out. Maybe this explains my love for Microcastle - even though it's a 'breakout' album, it's somewhat of a departure. The record opens with 'Cover Me (Slowly)', a slow instrumental intro, starting the theme that's expanded in 'Agoraphobia'. This immediately marks a distinct change from Cryptograms-era Deerhunter - it's much more dry, more precise, and almost overly mild. Actually, it sounds just like the song 'AT&T' by Pavement, and this might also be why I fell in love with it. Microcastle veers between songs of desolation and strange, missing nostalgia, always rooted in pain and loss. 'Little Kids' is a built around an addictive melody, with a guitar riff that could be sing-song cute in another context. It's a song that paints a dark portrait of adolescence, which slowly ascends into a thick sheet of soundhaze without ever letting go of it's sing-along chorus. Most of the delivery on Microcastle is slow and restrained; the image of death lingers over everything, but you have to really work for it. The title cut is a beautiful minimalist sketch built around Cox's voice and an electric guitar which, when it finally explodes into the full-band stomp, has quite a payload. 'Calvary Scars' continues this wobbly, sparse delivery, letting the guitar overtones quilt up behind the voice; 'Green Jacket' fades to almost nothingness. The flipside starts with the melting shimmery 'Activa' before breaking into 'Nothing Ever Happened', the clear 'single' from the record. This twisting tune is driven by a strong bassline and it feels like a holdover from Cryptograms - not the waxed-paper vision of the rest of the album, but an appropriate inclusion anyway. The tune ends with a dizzying, descending guitar line that has traces of the Feelies around the edges. The jangle creeps in throughout the album, sometimes just as colour and sometimes as structure. 'Never Stops' and 'Saved by Old Times' both employ a confident 4/4 drive around their moaning, yearning tales of seasonal affective disorder and living in the past. A great album,yeah, but it's only half the package; like Cryptograms, Kranky is making sure I get my money's worth of Deerhunter for this purchase. Weird Era Cont. was thrown into this as a second LP, intended to be some sort of bonus album to combat leaked mp3s, or something like that. It's a bit of a Dead Letter Office, consisting (I guess) of Microcastle outtakes, but it's still pretty solid. The most successful tracks are fast rockers, such as  'Focus Group' and 'Operation', yet they're still holding a more stripped-down feel than anything on the regular album, which suggests that these tracks are unfinished. But a less polished Deerhunter is still nice; the sketches are lovely. 'Cicadas' attains a nearly free-jazz clatter; 'Ghost Outfit' is little more than a synth experiment, but interludes are lovely; see side 2's 'Slow Swords' for a real mood piece. These instrumental jams recall the ambient/song dichotomy of Cryptograms, though 'Weird Era' sounds more like No Neck Blues Band and 'Moon Witch Cartridge' is kinda goofy. 'Vox Celeste' brings out the more shoegazer qualities of their work, with vocals melting into a sea of reverb (but the vibe is still good, good). It's brother, 'Vox Humana' starts with big Phil Spector drums, which slowly recede into the distance as the mid-range gloom takes charge, subduing Cox's semi-spoken vocals under the warm reverb. The whole thing ends with a bubbly, melting version of 'Calvary Scars', thus tying the two LPs together into a conceptual whole.

Deerhunter - 'Cryptograms/Fluorescent Grey' (Kranky)

Somehow Deerhunter have crept into my life and become this powerful, meaningful band - the kind of rich n' deep artistes that fulfill almost everything I'm looking for in music (but struggle to continually find as I get older). Big words I guess, but I mean them -- there hasn't been an indie/rock artist that I've connected to this much in years. My love affair really began with Microcastle, but Cryptograms, the predecessor, is also fantastic. It's a strangely structured album, and this 2xLP reissue spreads it awkwardly over three sides, making it even harder for me to view it through the traditional bipartite rock album lens. Deerhunter would have never belonged on Kranky during their early Labradford/Bowery Electric/Tomorrowland days, but in recent years the label has embraced more song-based efforts and this record's pretty much a perfect fit. Bradford Cox began his ascent into the pantheon of great contemporary songwriters here, but it was a sneaky climb. Some of the catchiest songs on Cryptograms are crammed into the back, like 'Strange Lights' and 'Haze St.' - the former could have been a bright, brassy college radio hit, at least in my college days. In terms of album sequence,  Deerhunter here continually shift between the songs and the more ambient workouts, of which 'White Ink' and 'Red Ink' are the centerpieces. The most brilliant thing about Deerhunter is not this dichotomy though, nor the moments of integration when the sound exploration is built around a strong song (such as the dazzling title track, or the thunderous 'Octet'); the brilliance is in Cox's songwriting, which attains some of the most true melancholy I've ever listened to, but in a subtle way. Emotionally, Cryptograms doesn't jump out at me as much as the later records, but I haven't really invested myself in this album as much as the subsequent two. I know that any investment will pay off as it has for Microcastle and Halcyon Digest - this is a band in a brilliant run of music right now and I don't know where it's going to end. Cryptograms is building up to this wave, but not quite there yet. However, this lovely gatefold release is packaged with the Fluorescent Grey EP, and this is precisely the moment where the brilliant run begins. These four songs are about as perfect as things get, Deerhunter's Watery, Domestic. I really do think of Deerhunter like Pavement because I think Cox might be my favourite songwriter since them, and there seems to be as much depth, to me, in these songs, as in Malkmus's 'Greenlander' or 'Home'. The title track of the EP is where the creep factor begins - it's an exploration of death and obsession, lyrics almost perfectly underwritten, and it's just a great achievement. 'Dr. Glass' sets down a misleading groove with a fun woodblock/handclap accent, though it's about useless bodies. And this is what I love again - the subtle darkness, disguised by a flamboyant, psychedelic colour, yet it's not exactly like other psych music. 'Wash Off' is among my favourite Deerhunter songs too, and an excellent way to end (more so than 'Heatherwood' ends Cryptograms, which seems to demand a nonexistent coda). It's sharp and smooth at the same time, twisting around with wicked caresses. "I was sixteen" is the refrain, the counterpoint to "You were my god/in high school", making this EP really about adolescence, which of course rhymes with fluorescence. So fucking good. Please keep it coming.

Elton Dean's Ninesense - 'Happy Daze' (Ogun)

They're called Ninesense cause there's 9 of them, get it? Elton Dean was in Soft Machine but here's a place to show off his jazzy side. This is from '77 and the liner notes, laid in out a lovingly hand-written manner, talk extensively about the history and composition of the band. I like this record lots, but I have a major soft spot for the South African expat/Chris McGregor axis, of which Louis Moholo and Harry Miller are present here. That's a hell of a rhythm section and they really start off with a warm inviting ball on 'Nicrotto', and then into a propulsive, slow swing on 'Seven for Lee'. The other 7, led of course by Dean's confident if slightly indistinct alto, never overplay. This is a who's-who of 70s British jazzbos, with some names I sort of recognize and others that I don't at all. The duo of Marc Charig and Harry Beckett are the high points for me, who play trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn and tenor horn (though I'm not one to really distinguish these). They give the ninetet a bright and brassy assonance that cuts through the repetitive themes laid down by the saxes and trombones.  The opening cut 'Nicrotto' is such a beautiful start to a record - such a gentle swell of harmony - and yet it also starts pulling away from itself about halfway through, where Keith Tippett's piano revs the whole band towards a discordant mess. It comes crashing back down into some nice, smouldering ashes, and the record never actually gets better. 'Seven for Lee' maybe gets a bit too Apollonian for my tastes, but it works well against the more outrĂ© sounds heard elsewhere, and it has an excellent start, lurching out of the aforementioned ashes. The flipside is a bit more traditional, opening with 'Sweet F.A.', I assume a paen to the football association of England. This is where Dean and Tippett really get their freak on; long, dizzying solos fill the 11 minutes of this song, over Harry Miller's repeating bass chords. It's jazz-by-numbers, but Tippett's solo in particular is stunning, sounding like he has 4 hands. The closer, 'Three For All', is not as wild as it's title might suggest, falling into a hard-bop groove that works because of the confident rhythms behind it. Tippet's piano chords punctuate all the right moments, giving this a nice momentum. Happy it is, a daze it's not, but it's a successful outing for sure.

6 May 2012

Dead Luke - 'American Haircut' (Florida's Dying)

There's a new strain of psychedelia kicking about the American underground the last few years. It's characterised by a return to lyrical songwriting (after the more jammy, improvisatory neo-pysch made large by people like NNCK and MV/EE) and voluntarily lo-fi production techniques. Dead Luke fits right in with this, with lots of strummy guitars, drugged out organs, and reverb-drenched vocals, occasionally unintelligible. I guess this is a one-man band, though with a few guests, and a thick, full sound.  I listened to this record inside out because both sides are labeled "A", so I (of course) started with side B by accident, which leads from a hazy midpoint ('You're Bringing Me Down') into 'God Bless the Midwest, God Roast the East Coast', a rambling, scattered sketch. 'Lil' Red Ridin Hood', compositionally credited to an anonymous third party, is a deceptively complex tune. Like much of this record, it hides behind a twee wall, with home-made style casio keys and a bouncing melody. But by the end, it builds up nicely, and the recording fidelity is revealed to be more than just a 4-track mess - there's a lot of clarity there, it's just chosen sparingly. When Dead Luke stretches things out, such as 'Sunrise', it's quite welcome - there's a sea of tremolo to sail across. Said track, which ends side A and therefore ends the record for me, is a melting semi-instrumental with great Eastern tinges to the acoustics, and deep, reverberating percussion. The voices in the background are distant and murmuring, giving this track a hash bar feel. 'Trapped in Lust', the proper opener, has a stark, confident, and relatively sparse feel that shows this guy's songwriting chops. More has probably come since this came out in 2010 but I don't know where to go next - but this is a nice random pickup that fits in well with the sounds of today.