Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Actually Like: Venice Is Sinking

On Thursday, I got an email from the Athens, GA band Venice Is Sinking, informing me of the release of their new album AZAR. Since it was the first email I've ever gotten from a band wanting me to write about them, I felt flattered enough to listen to the album and, lo and behold, I actually liked it.

Venice Is Sinking play the sort of orchestral indie rock often termed "slowcore," and true to form, the tempos on AZAR don't often rise above a sitting person's heartbeat. But it's the band's stately pace that allows their richly textured arrangements to be fully appreciated. Utilizing trumpets, viola, steel drums, and the shimmer of sounds played in reverse, Venice Is Sinking remind of everything I loved about the rich and cinematic arrangements of bands like Rachel's and Low.

The two songs I'm posting for download, "Wetlands Dancehall" and "Iron Range" are my favorites on the album. "Wetlands Dancehall" begins with a shuffling, shaker-driven beat and singer Karolyn Troupe's almost operatic vocals, gradually turning into a glittering waltz. On their iLike page, the band mention they recorded Javanese seed pods for the album and I think I hear the sound of the pods flit in and out of the song's choruses.

"Iron Range" starts out sounding like a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song, with Troupe's viola weaving upwards through a bed of strummed guitars and ethereal synths, the music building towards one of those classic post-rock crescendo that give you goosebumps no matter how many times you hear them. When the vocals come in, Troupe and fellow singer Daniel Lawson use their harmonies to slowly ascend to what sounds like the highest note in both their ranges.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Us Remember: Smog's "Let Me See the Colts"

Smog's A River Ain't Too Much to Love is generally considered the beginning of Bill Callahan's kinder, gentler period, a period that, with the release of his new album, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, appears to have come to an end. But A River...is far from the sappy, nature-loving therapy session it's often made out to be. While songs like "I Feel like the Mother of the World" and "Rock Bottom Riser" are kind of hokey, most of the album has an awe-struck ambivalence to it, a recognition that nature is as much about death and decay as it is about peace and tranquility.

One of my favorite songs on the album is "Let Me See the Colts." As the album's closer, it sums up Callahan's guarded hopefulness in the image of watching colts being trained to race in the coming year. The song begins with Callahan bursting into his girlfriend's room and excitedly asking her to take him to see "the colts that will run next year." He tells her he wants to show the horses to "a gambling man....thinking about the future." This last image is enigmatic, since the reason Callahan wants to show the horses to the gambling man is never made clear. Are the horses supposed to make the gambler optimistic about future winnings? Or is he being shown the horses to make him stop thinking about the future (i.e. which horse he should bet on) and just appreciate the beauty of the running colts?

One of my favorite lines of the song is "The all-knowing, all seeing eye is dog tired/It just wants to see the colts." Firstly, the line's slightly ridiculous since the all-knowing, all-seeing eye would have already seen the colts run, but it's the idea that, having seen all there is to see (and presumably being both exhausted and in despair), the omniscient eye just wants that sliver of hope that comes with seeing horses run, even if it already knows all the future outcomes. You get the sense Callahan empathizes with this feeling, like he's experienced too much to be truly optimistic about anything, but he wants the brief breath of hope and inspiration that comes with seeing something that seems to epitomize all the wonderful possibilities of the coming future.

"Let Me See the Colts" would be a great ending credits song, because it imparts hope without explicitly saying things are going to be OK. Its uplift has a kind of OCD quality to it, like Callahan desperately needs to see the colts run to feel good about the future. Earlier in the song, when he wakes up his girlfriend, she asks him if he's been drinking. "No, neither drinking nor sleeping," he answers, and you can picture exactly what he looks and sounds like. It's this half crazed quality that's part of what makes the song that rare thing: a hopeful song for the hopeless.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All Screwed Up: 4 Deep's "Rollin' 4 Deep"

Like ESG's "Smoke On," DJ Screw's version of 4 Deep's "Rollin' 4 Deep" is woozy as hell. You have to laugh when whoever is talking at the beginning of the song says "let's get crunk," since nothing this slow and bluesy could be mistaken for crunk, or at least the hyped up version of crunk represented by Lil Jon and Three Six Mafia.

Screw stretches out the beginning of the song for a couple of minutes, letting you absorb the leisurely guitar line that rings out like a a sigh, or a deep exhaling of breath. Of course, as usual, members of the Screwed Up Click are talking shit over the song, but here the talk sounds like the pleasant background noise of a party, more comforting than annoying. Besides slowing down the song, Screw has also added some sort of resonance filter, as you can hear the song dip into its low end and then emerge back up again. Stuff like this drives people on ecstasy crazy when it's used in house or techno, so I'm sure it had a similar effect on anyone high on codeine syrup (though anyone's who actually tried the latter can feel free to tell me if I'm wrong).

At around 8:10, Screw brings in the chorus. When you listen to the original song, you realize those moaning voices in the background on the Screw version are just ad-libs, or little throwaways bits of melody added to beef up the chorus. Slowed down, the effect is far more soulful and vulnerable, making even the random ad-lib "Hello, six pack of tobacco" sound slightly desperate, if maybe in a slightly self-parodying way.

After this, Screw starts this amazing delayed gratification thing he sometimes does where he'll scratch the first line of the song over and over, messing with your expectations enough times until you're resigned to just hearing the line repeated ad nauseum. For me, this creates a hypnotic effect similar to drone or ambient music, where you're no longer expecting the music to progress, just enjoying the mood it creates. Also, catch how slow he's scratching--he's not trying to show off with some Scribble Jam bullshit pyrotechnics, but instead just using the scratching as another musical element.

Once the rapping starts, the slow pace of the song is kept all costs, with Screw chopping up almost half the lines of the first verse. Every time a line gets chopped, the listener is forced to follow Screw's tempo, not the rapper's. I'm sure for many listeners, it's this very "chopping" that turns them off this kind of music because it makes listening to rap the conventional way, by following the rhythm of the rhyme, nearly impossible. If you listen to Michael Watts' "screwed and chopped" mixes (which should be called "slowed and chopped" since only Screw can make screwed and chopped mixes), there seems to be more care taken that the chopping itself doesn't obscure the rhymes, whereas Screw, on a song like Tray Dee's "Droppin' Bombz" off of the No Time for Bullshit tape, will chop a song up within an inch of its life.

Screw chops the hell out of the song's second chorus, making "real g's roll four deep" sound like "real real j-j-j-ees ro-ro fo-fo dee-deep." Then after a quick scratch, he gives the first two lines of the second verse "Coming up the block boomin' blades/ Steady hittin switches you can't fade" this bizarre, almost ODB-like cadence, which I wish was repeated three or four more times.

"Rollin' 4 Deep" appears quite frequently on Screw tapes and it's quite clear why. Like ESG's "Smoke On," it's got one of those beats that sounds perfect screwed, to the point where the original sort of pales in comparison. I've included the original (via Noz's great post on 4 Deep) so you can hear the differences I've mentioned.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Portland's Got to Be Good for Something: Valet Covers Boris

Valet's Naked Acid was one of my favorite records last year and for good reason. Few records combined all the disparate strains of 21st century psychedelic music, from drone to space rock to slightly out of tune backwoods weirdness, as well as it did. Now Valet (AKA Honey Owens) is back with a new 12" record called False Face Society on Mexican Summer, a cool, bizarrely subscription based (because lord knows the subscription based model has been a winner for the music industry!) record label.

One of the songs on False Face Society is a cover of "Rainbow" by Boris and Ghost guitar god Michio Kurihara, and it's as great as you'd imagine it to be. Starting out as a Windy and Carl drone (with some cheesy cool heavy breathing stereo pans), the song alternates between heavily treated wah-wah guitar solos and Owens's whispery vocals. Listening to the original side by side with Valet's treatment, it's clear that, while Owens can't touch Kurihara in the guitar heroics department (dude's solos sound like they could cut metal), her version is arguably "trippier" and sexier with its lower-fi, soft-focus sound.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All Screwed Up: ESG's "Smoke On"

Over the past two months, I've developed an immense appreciation for the music of DJ Screw. At their best, Screw's mixes re-imagine and re-contextualize rap music, making it, in turns psychedelic and bizarre, haunting and heartbroken, and celebratory and slow motion funky. Since Screw made over three hundred tapes and often mixed based on playlist requests, the results aren't always as great as they could be. However, since only the residents of Houston during the 90s and early part of this decade know which tapes were playlist requests and which were curated by Screw, there is the exciting possibility that random dudes from the neighborhood understood Screw's aesthetic and could hear the possibilities in screwing up, say, Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight."

When you realize that, for almost ten years, people rode around Houston in their cars bumping this dark and druggy music, music that often requires incredible patience and tolerance for repetition (on Blue Ova Grey, Screw stretches out Ice Cube's "Loved Ones" for twelve minutes, with the first five minutes devoted to nothing but the song's first couple of bars and slowed-down, drunken shout-outs from the Screwed Up Click), it's hard not to be in awe of the whole phenomenon, something that shows, as Brandon from No Trivia says "just how weird regionalism can be." Listeners who probably wouldn't even consider something like drone music music had no problem hearing a Scarface punchline repeated so many times that it starts to fold back on itself and become meaningless, at least in the literal sense of communicating meaning through words. Like drone or ambient music, Screw's music slows down the listener, lowering your heart rate and making time seem slower and more meditative. While some people insist the music should only be listened to under the influence of codeine cough syrup or marijuana, I disagree. Listen to the music for long enough and it creates the conditions needed to appreciate it.

Since the All Screwed Up series is about specific songs that I feel like people need to hear to continually appreciate the brilliance of Screw, I want to start with ESG's "Smoke On." Featured on the Syrup and Soda tape, "Smoke On" is great in so many ways. It mimics the slow, laid back feeling of being high and without a care in the world, the beat's airy G-funk keyboards sounding like the afternoon light that creeps through your window as you're zoning out on your living room couch. But since the original song was never meant to sound this druggy, it also retains its aggression and anger, sounding like a bunch of dudes who, high as they may be, are ready in second to get yanked back into the reality of defending their manhood and their status in their neighborhood.

Or you could hear it in all its passivity, its swagger and boasts empty in the face of a pleasant numbness. The chorus can sound so ghostly, as if you're smoking on and on to feel less human, less connected to your body and your mind, or, instead, less connected to things specific to you and more tuned into how it feels to just be. As pretentious as this last interpretation sounds, you can't deny it's not there in the music, just like you also can't deny that, druggy or not, part of the song is still rooted in the culture of dudes driving around stoned and showing off their cars and jewelry.

This is the complexity of Screw's music, the way it opens up songs to new interpretations and new ways of hearing, instead of closing them on some "This is gangsta music--case closed" crap.
In future installments of All Screwed Up, I hope to explore this complexity and hopefully help people realize how revolutionary and powerful Screw's music was and is.