January 20, 2009: Iran, Dissolver

Those hoping to uncover a rough gem of a TV on the Radio sideproject will probably be pretty disappointed by Iran, whose main member Aaron Aites had the good fortune to enlist of the help of TVOTR guitarist Kyp Malone for Iran’s self-titled 2000 album and 2003’s The Moon Boys. Those albums were cavalcades of tape wreckage and feedback with some songs maybe buried somewhere underneath— at the time, a reasonable diversion for those of us who missed the halcyon days of early 90s lo-fi. And even these days, with the rise of Woodsist/Fuck It Tapes and a legion of other psych-damaged home-recordists, one would think a new Iran album similar to the others would attract some new fans. Unfortunately, we got Dissolver instead.

Thanks to the TVOTR connection, Aites got Dave Sitek to record him in a real studio for a change, which apparently blew his mind all to hell because now Iran sounds like Pink Floyd— mopey arena-rock with lots of importantly strummed acoustic guitars and vocals mixed way too high. And when I say “arena-rock” I’m not kidding, because halfway through the album Iran interrupts a pretty little acoustic tune with a bombastic reprise of an earlier track, complete with piped-in crowd noise. Questionable employment of irony aside, though, the new cleaned-up Iran doesn’t work for me; Aites doesn’t have the frontman charisma to carry these songs, or imbue them with a distinct personality. Maybe the album would have worked better if it had been dirtied up a bit (think Dave Fridmann’s treatment of Low’s The Great Destroyer and Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods), but that’s not Sitek’s production style, which is a big part of the problem. The other big part is the classic dilemma of the aggressively lo-fi band: how much of the band’s appeal is defined by their production values, and how much of the appeal will be lost if said values change? Pavement and GBV had the songwriting chops to succeed after having shed their lo-fi ways; most other bands (Iran included) should probably stay well hidden deep down in their 4-tracks.

January 19, 2009: Here We Go Magic

Luke Temple‘s solo albums have been relatively conventional singer-songwriter-folkie stuff compared to the psych-drone-freak-folk of his new project— in fact, Here We Go Magic‘s moody, hypnotic ambience sounds so unlike 2007’s Snowbeast (whose crisp, dry sound and vintage synth colors carry a distinct 70s-prog vibe) that the casual listener would never guess that the new albums were written by the same person. So what prompted the change? Is Temple jumping on the Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective bandwagon while chanting over piles of loops smothered in reverb is still a viable career option?

Whatever his motives are, HWGM is a pretty damn good album regardless, or at least half a damn good album. The first half would have made a killer EP: the marimba-like percussive loops and droning vocals of “Only Pieces” sounds both soothing and oddly intense, like a light mushroom buzz; “Ahab”‘s Meters-like riff submerges itself in the song’s tape hiss while the bright organ drones cut right through it. “Fangela” and “Tunnelvision”, though, are the big winners here, with their clanging, yip-jumpy acoustic guitars and Temple showing off his Gibbard-tested, Sufjan-approved falsetto to great effect. The unassuming, easygoing vibe these songs have make me think that Temple is just a really, really good musician in general; really good musicians tend to exude a certain level of confidence and focus that makes anything they play seem natural, and that’s what I hear throughout this album.

That said, the second half is a bit of a letdown, dominated as it is by ambient washes lacking any vocal or rhythmic hooks that served as vital anchors to the songs of the first half. Closing track “Everything’s Big” is a twee bit of softshoe pop that would have fit onto a Temple solo album just fine; here, the rough production gives it the grainy feel of a field recording, but it still feels tacked on and out of place. Here We Go Magic is the kind of album that doesn’t feel like an endpoint, a culmination of a musical search, but rather a stop in the middle of the journey. It’s the kind of album that gets me excited to see what Temple will do next.

January 11, 2009: It Hugs Back, Inside Your Guitar

It doesn’t come as a surprise that a band named It Hugs Back would play such wispy cottonball indie-pop, but the part I don’t get is why they’re signed to that bastion of arty etherealism, 4AD. Inside Your Guitar sounds like a Fisher-Price version of Yo La Tengo— a bit oversimplified, and with all of the rough edges sanded down. Brisk, metronomic rhythms underpin light keyboard drone, lighter guitar jangle, and mushmouthed vocals that sound like they were recorded on tissue paper. It’s pleasant enough, and fairly catchy in parts, but it’s also generically twee, lacking much of a personality of its own. On any other label, they’d be pretty slight; amidst the idiosyncratic critics’ darlings that populate 4AD’s roster, they seem downright inessential.

January 3, 2009: The Monosyllabic Year in Music 2008

We Versus The Shark, “Practical Animals”: Any band that resurrects the sweet-and-sour, perpetually-on-the-verge-of-falling-apart 90s-math-rock anthemics of the likes of The Dismemberment Plan, Shudder To Think, and Chavez is going to be all right with me. (In fact, they formed out of a collective involvement in a D-Plan fansite, and they cover Shudder’s “X-French Tee Shirt” on the kickass covers album they did this year.) Now if only they would tour the west coast once in a while…

Black Taj, “Fresh Air Traverse”: Former Polvo dudes fully indulge their boogie-rock jones and conjure the spirit of Steppenwolf and Hendrix without resorting to trendy psych-freak-folk tropes (beards, skinny denim, drugs). (There’s no youtube for “Fresh Air Traverse”, so here’s one for “Cold Comfort” instead:)

Meneguar, “We Own We Sell”: Initially a bunch of post-Fugazi latecomer also-rans (albeit with better hook/melody instincts than most), this year’s The In Hour sunk Meneguar deep into the lo-fi murk until they emerged somewhere in Ariel Pink’s loopy psych-pop neighborhood.

Earth, “Hung From The Moon”: It took Dylan Carlson over ten years to figure out that the only way to follow up the ambient-metal touchstone Earth 2 was to rid himself of that album’s defining sonic characteristic: distortion. With the volume still redlined and a full band locked into the vibe, the resulting music seems even more monolithic and resinated than before.

Autistic Daughters, “Gin Over Sour Milk”: If I write the words “cinematic jazz-inflected post-rock” many people’s knees will immediately jerk in the direction of 1998 and the swamp of post-Tortoise dub-groove wankery. Thank god then that Autistic Daughters hail from a more avant-minimalist school, where brushes and upright bass form a very spare foundation for floating chords and scratchy tape loops. And the “cinematic” part comes not from being all easy-listening groove instrumentals but rather from sounding like a J-horror film, all unbearable simmering tension, dark empty space, and the occasional jolt of feedback being scraped across a(n also very dark and empty) blackboard.

Women, “Black Rice”: I love how unassuming this song is, how the drowsy, bleary-eyed verse lurches into the gently shimmering chorus, and then the bridge, where the British Invasion inflections burst forth like a rainbow from a prism of reverb.

Little Teeth, “Japanese Candy”: Little Teeth’s childhood nightmares and gender confusion are pages ripped right out of Kurt Cobain’s notebooks, but even Kurt didn’t possess a voice like Dannie Murrie’s, a frighteningly feral growl/shriek that— at least for the first part of “Japanese Candy”— seems to be intent on sounding as gnarled and ugly as possible. But then in the second verse, where the melody gets pushed up a full octave, what was an ugly duckling suddenly transforms into a ten-story-tall titanium-clad mecha in the shape of an ugly duckling, turning the merely nerve-jangling into something spine-tinglingly operatic.

Young Widows, “Old Skin”: A throwback to the days where words like “pigfuck” and “Amphetamine Reptile” might have meant something to the average indie-rock fan, where “something” refers to the kind of misanthropic gutter aggression that turns visceral low-end judder and searing guitar distortion into an aural curbstomp. See also Unsane, Hammerhead, Cop Shoot Cop, etc. etc.

Zazen Boys, “Weekend”: I have much more to write about Zazen Boys and their newest album, which is still tragically available for sale in the U.S. (and probably everywhere else outside of Japan), so for the sake of space I’ll just point you to the video below, which melds a typically Japanese deadpan goofiness with bionically unstoppable Prince-funk.

Max Tundra, “Which Song”: It’s Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking” and the old Entertainment Tonight theme song put through an ancient MIDI blender by a bloke who doesn’t leave his bedroom much. By which I mean the only way it could be more 80’s awesome is if it was wearing a belted Hypercolor T-shirt.

Born Ruffians, “Hummingbird”: Because sometimes all you want to do is jump up and down and run around in circles on the front lawn.

Maus Haus, “Radio Dials Die”: One of the Bay Area’s best new bands picks up where the first couple of Enon albums left off, with sinuous melodies, squelching whirring keyboards, shuffling drums, and thoroughly insidious catchiness.

We Is Shore Dedicated, “Tinderstix and Russian River”: Another Bay Area band, this one a subtle mix of Americana twang and Eastern European melody, topped off with the wry, dark ruminations and occasional, accidentally poetic linguistic missteps of a gentleman for whom English is not his first language– but given some of the things he sings about, I’d rather not correct him, because god knows what shady things he did back in the motherland. (Nothing available on youtube by them either, so here’s their myspace page for more info.)

The Mountain Goats, “Autoclave”: Heretic Pride is the culmination of a journey that began when John Darnielle first stepped into a real recording studio for their first 4AD album; thanks to the addition of drummer Jon Wurster to the lineup, the Mountain Goats finally sound like a real band. And although Heretic Pride lacks the overarching lyrical themes of previous Goats albums, it leaves room for perfect pop singles like this one.

The Dodos, “Fools”: Insider pro-tip: anyone referring to “African ewe drumming” when discussing the Dodos is a hack. It’s simple enough to google “African ewe drumming” or search for youtube clips, compare that to the Dodos, and realize that the two drumming styles are nothing alike. Just taking their press kit’s word for it is the hallmark of a true sucker. Just because Meric (the guitarist) took a class on it in college doesn’t mean Logan (the drummer) is doing anything remotely like it.

Anyway. Just had to get that off my chest. You’d think that the fact that two guys, one with an acoustic guitar and the other with half a drum kit, can rock harder sitting down than most bands twice their size can standing up, would be enough of an angle for music blog scribes.