Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I Actually Like: Woods (with a few reservations)

Had I not been looking for new (non-rap) music to write about, I might have written off Woods as yet another band making shambling, slightly off center psychedelic rock music that's basically just ripping off Neil Young's Zuma. But I like lead singer Jeremy Earl's voice. Michael Hansen, from the great blog Decibel Tolls, describes it as "Elliott Smith experiencing zipper troubles" and I don't think I can come up with a better description. Pitchfork compares his voice to Neil Young, but Earl's voice is far wimpier. Though Woods play a similar form of backwoods psych to former labelmates (on Fuck It Tapes, the label the band themselves founded) MV and EE (Matt Valentine and Erika Elder), Earl's voice is far more melodious than Valentine's verging-on-atonal whine. 

The song Pitchfork posted, "Rain On," off their new LP Songs of Shame, is a pleasant, folksy psych-rock song, saved from mediocrity by Earl's voice. The way his falsetto keeps pressing against its limit on the verses brings the focus where it should be: on the sound of his voice, rather than what's he's saying. The circular guitar line on the chorus acts a cool sort of answer to Earl's vocals too. "Gypsy Hand," also off Songs of Shame, has a slightly annoying sing-song melody and foolishly buries Earl's falsetto, making me worry "Rain On" might be the only Woods song I'll ever like.

Songs of Shame, and the band's previous album, Rear House, have both been released in limited edition tape form, and I'm wondering if I would appreciate the band more in that crackly, analog format than on CD. The Fuck It Tapes aesthetic and the whole idea of still, in this day and age, putting music on tapes, is about the way the archaic sound quality changes the music itself. Like the way DJ Screw can make a cliched C-Bo song about riding around the hood in his car haunting and poignant just by slowing it down, layers of tape hiss and compression can be both a comment on more established forms of music ( like I talked about here with Wavves) and a distancing tool, allowing for new and different ways of hearing song forms we've all heard thousands of times before.

Of course, this begs the question, which has come up concerning Wavves, if songs need fucked up production values to be interesting, are they really good songs at all? I don't really agree with this kind of thinking, but by suggesting Woods would sound better on tape, I'm wondering if I'm lending some truth to that kind of criticism.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let Us Remember: The Greatness of ELO

I'm tired of people ironically enjoying the Electric Light Orchestra. What exactly is so lame about their music that it requires ironic distance? The fact that the band had silly cover art, overambitious arrangements, and dopey, idealistic lyrics makes them pretty much like every other popular rock band of their era. You can't ironically like ELO without ironically liking the Beatles or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, because all those artists have moments as cheesy (if not cheesier) as Jeff Lynne and Co. I'm not saying you have to rank ELO with those bands, just that you can't damn one band for their excesses while completely ignoring those same excesses in another, more popular band.

And to act like adding synthesizers to rock music is lame in this day and age is just silly. If anything, the band were trailblazers. From Daft Punk's Discovery (whose title is an homage to ELO's Discovery album) to Phoenix to M83 to any random Kitsune Maison dance rock band that makes a song that sounds like a late 70s disco rock one-off, the influence of ELO is still strong. The reason the band's influence has remained so strong despite cultural and critical baggage is that they made great pop music.

Listen to "Confusion" (off Discovery) and "Rain is Falling" (off Time). Even stripped down they would be beautiful songs, but who would want to lose all the different synth sounds? "Confusion" features a harpsichord-like sound, a deeper, flanged keyboard, and that descending organ part that sounds like someone whistling. "Rain is Falling" has just as many different sounds, my favorite being the one played during in the intro that sounds like a voice singing underwater.

Face it, snobs: ELO hate has nothing to do with the actual music and everything to do with residual judgments left over from pompous rockists and the "Disco Sucks" movement.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Actually Like: Fabo, pt. 2

I wanted to do a second part to my "I Actually Like: Fabo" post, partly because I couldn't figure out how to conclude the previous post and partly because there really is a lot more to say. While tracks like "So High" and "It Got Me" are full of anger and paranoia, songs like "Super Good" and "Spaceship Man" are more celebratory, with the latter sounding like some kind of geeked up gospel music.

Produced by DJ Speedy (who also produced the great Gucci Mane track "Running Back"), "Spaceship Man" is less about escaping the harsh world on your spaceship and more about getting so high you cease to be human. That idea may sound silly, but what else are drug music and gospel music united in except escaping the human form? Hearing a song like "Spaceship Man," you realize how boring so many party and drug songs are, because while partying is supposed to be about losing control, most of those songs seem to be about maintaining it, whether by mean-mugging everyone you see and carrying a gun or by refusing to dance. To a certain extent I get this, because if you're worried that the minute you start dancing someone is going to to jump you, well, then caution and a certain amount of sobriety is understandable.

But it's clear Fabo doesn't give a fuck about this. While most of his songs contain at least one gun reference, it's clear that, deep in his heart, it's all about the drugs. He wants to lose control, wants to get to that place you see clubgoers and churchgoers go to where they look lost in their own pleasure. That place is pretty solipsistic, and it's where genres like crunk and snap music meet rave and dance culture and produce a kind a strange reaction to "rap music," namely solitary girls and guys dancing their asses off, unconnected to the world around them.

Of course that reaction among elated churchgoers isn't considered strange, because they're connecting more to God than to the people around them. The fact that Fabo is partying on a spaceship and not in a club is telling, and separates the song from other "wildin' out in the club" songs like it. Like heaven, a spaceship isn't subject to human laws, and therefore at no point will the lights come up, the music go down, and the bartenders start cleaning up, reminding everybody that "Oh shit, real life has started again."

A song like "Super Good" is more standard snap music fare and, if you want to be super literal about it, contradicts a lot of what makes Fabo's other songs so interesting. He's "mean mugging haters," "in the VIP," and re-enacting "Love in the Club," but so what? I don't expect "Spaceship Man" or "So High" every time and neither should you. What's interesting about Fabo as an artist is that he's not just making a "spaceship" song because Lil Wayne made "Phone Home" or a drug song because that's what all snap or crunk artists do; his sincerity and conviction is unmistakable. Let's hope he stays true to himself and keeps making great music.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Actually Like: Fabo, pt. 1

When you think about snap music, you think about silly dances and popping 909 drums, not sadness and drug-fueled paranoia. But the latter is all over the music of Fabo. Formerly of D4L, of "Laffy Taffy" fame, Fabo has, with songs like "So High," "Spaceship Man, " and "It Got Me," created a kind of snap music that brings to the forefront the darker elements that have always lurked in the margins of party rap.

While the majority of party rap songs follow the same stale cliches about hitting on hot girls at clubs and showing off your clothes and jewelry, the best songs capture that mix of joy, sadness, and self-destruction that happens when you're literally trying to party your life away. It's interesting that this kind of song appears far more frequently in regional forms of rap like hyphy and snap music than in more mainstream rap, and I would attribute this to the fact that regional acts are far more likely to play club shows, where the audience is full of working people who want to dance and drink their problems away, and where a certain amount of "fuck the world, I'm getting wasted" attitude is always welcome.

On the first verse of "So High," Fabo sounds like he's about to pass out, his mind racing with hallucinations, fears of going to jail ("It's so easy to be erased/Another judge, another case"), and a nagging desire to just get even higher. The second verse is a little less lyrically dark, but the sadness that was there before is even more palpable because Fabo is singing instead of rapping. The pathos in the line like "I can dance on the moon, and I can hardly breathe/Now that don't mean I want you bothering me" is undeniable for a number of reasons, but mostly because of the way it's sung. Note the fact that it's not "but I can hardly breathe," but "and I can hardly breathe," meaning being barely able to breathe is pleasurable. Fabo is high on feeling close to death, and he doesn't want anybody fucking up that high.

The chorus of "It Got Me" makes this kind of feeling even more explicit, with the lines "I look good tonight, I got a whole big bag of thrills/I already feel alright, but I might overdose for real/ Cus it got me, it got me..." The song's beat is full of foreboding and melodramatic synthesized strings, like the sound of a drug addiction overwhelming all other desires. Fabo raps "I do this every day, it's like religion, routine..." and it's impossible to deny that you're listening to either someone already addicted to drugs or someone who will be soon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's Get Deep for a Second: Drone For a Sad Day

I just found out this morning that my grandmother has passed away. And since drone music is the only thing that seems to capture that subtle mix of vague and visceral emotions that appear at times like these, I thought I'd share some of my favorite artists in the genre.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Actually Like: Wavves

For someone with a healthy threshold for low production values and liberal doses of fuzz and feedback, I have to admit that the first time I heard Wavves, I was like "Whoa, that's just unlistenable." It didn't help that the music was described as "surf-punk," which is how every mediocre punk band who plays major chords describes themselves.

But after hearing the band (really just one dude, Nathan Williams) praised everywhere, I figured I'd give the music another shot. And while I'm not completely smitten with Wavves like other bloggers, I'm definitely a fan.

First and foremost, you've got to respect Williams' branding power. With nearly every song featuring the words "California," "weed," "beach," "sun," or "girl" somewhere in the title, you've have to be retarded not to know what's trying to be evoked. Copping Beach Boys riffs and harmonies, Wavves reimagines surf music as scuzzy pop music for teenage skaters and stoners. For me, the music evokes that particularly teenage mixture of joy, anger, and hormones I had back in middle school, the kind of feeling that made my friends and I just randomly decide to destroy this kid's homemade skate park or sneak shots of vodka and practice pogoing to Blanks 77 records.

Whether Williams' songs would hold up as well sans fuzz is a good question, but also kind of beside the point. It's clearly an intentional choice on his part to record with such low fidelity, and it pays off as a tool for distancing the recycled riffs and harmonies from their more clean cut (and cleaner sounding) origins. Just like when Fennesz coats sentimental surfer fare like "Endless Summer" in layers and layers of fuzz and computer glitches, the ultimate effect is a kind of warped nostalgia. Time has roughed up these remnants of an idealized past and there is no going back. As well, the purposely ugly nature of some of the sounds puts into question whether surf music and surfer culture were as innocent as they appeared.

Underneath it all, Wavves is pop music. And while some of the material off his first album Wavves can be so fuzzed out it's difficult hear much beyond a basic caveman surf melody, everything I've heard off his second album, Wavvves, has just the right mixture of surfer harmonies and fuzzed out punk.