June 28, 2009: Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

At 2009’s halfway point it appears that the ever-premature debate over Album Of The Year, at least as far as the Pitchforkosphere is concerned, is mostly about three NYC-based art-rock bands. The buzz surrounding Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest seems to have worn off, and apart from “Two Weeks” (a nice single, if one indebted to fellow NYCers French Kicks and The Walkmen), the album strikes me as a rather timid followup to Yellow House. As for Animal Collective, I’ve never been much of a fan, but I enjoyed Merriweather Post Pavilion in part because it’s a great pleasure to see an obviously talented and ambitious band rein in their indulgences and focus on writing the killer pop album that was always seemingly within their reach.

Dirty Projectors are likewise talented and ambitious, but their back catalog is so full of heavy conceptual exercises and wilfully obtuse artiness that I just assumed they would never even be interested in making anything catchy and accessible. Not only am I crow-eatingly shocked by Bitte Orca‘s manic pop thrills, I’m absolutely gobsmacked at the ease at which bandleader Dave Longstreth balanced his established idiosyncracies with a mastery of pop-song expectations. And part of that mastery is what I feel is Bitte Orca‘s best and most capital-I Important trait: it’s one of the year’s strongest arguments for the preservation of the full-length album format.

And to think, it’s not even a concept album— at least not in the press-friendly way that previous Dirty Projectors albums were, where writers could pad their pieces gosh-golly-wowing at Rise Above‘s idea of covering an entire Black Flag album from memory, or whatever The Getty Address was “about”. I’ve always found the mere existence of “concept” on an album to be an inevitable distraction from the issue of whether or not the album is actually any good. Unlike said predecessors, Bitte Orca thankfully has no such baggage coming out of the gate, which gives overanalyzing bores like me license to impose our own imaginary frameworks on it. So yes I’m totally allowing for the possibility that I’m full of crap here, but I’m convinced that the Bitte Orca‘s track ordering is what elevates it from a really good album to a damn near brilliant one. The sequencing forms an honest-to-god suite full of thematic and emotional arcs both micro and macro in scope; I can’t imagine hearing this group of songs played in a different order and having quite the same effect.

The album kicks off with three tracks that provide an opening statement of purpose, establishing the Dirty Projectors’ sound as a shiny refinement of Rise Above‘s Afro-pop leanings: nimble sparkling guitars, sparse staggered percussion, David Longstreth’s weird croon/wail (mostly kept within the bounds of tastefulness), and Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian’s backing vocals that trade off between complex harmonizing and call-and-response syncopation. After that, Longstreth steps away from the mic and lets Coffman and Deradoorian handle the lead vocal duties on “Stillness is the Move” and “Two Doves”. It’s also during these two tracks that a string quartet makes its first appearance, and I love the way that it only appears during the very end of “Stillness” to provide a lead-in to “Doves”. I also love that these two tracks, while linked by these similarities in arrangement, are stylistically very different: “Stillness” is a summertime R&B single, whereas “Doves” is a soothing Sufjan-esque folk ditty.

Longstreth returns to the mic and the strings depart for the album’s climax, the six-and-a-half-minute “Useful Chamber”, which piles on electro-glitchiness and production tricks only hinted at previously: keening pitch-bended synths, autotuned-to-death (or possibly just cut-up) backing vocals, and a fuzzed-out maelstrom of a chorus complete with a ridiculous guitar-hero solo capper. After that, there’s not really anywhere for Bitte Orca to go but down, but the remaining tracks provide a pleasant coast to the finish line. It’s tough for “No Intention” to do anything but be a bit of a comedown from “Useful Chamber” and a reversion to the status quo, coming off as a weaker version of parts of previous songs, although it does have its laid-back charms. The strings of “Stillness” and “Two Doves” return for the final two tracks: “Remade Horizon”, on which the pingponging call-and-responses reach their logical extreme— not only do the guitars get in on the action, sounding jumpier than ever, but Coffman’s and Deradoorian’s rapid-fire parts interlocking into a single melody at the three-minute mark is nothing short of magical— and the watery slow-jam “Flourescent Half Dome”, little more than a soothing extended outro, but a well-earned one.

Bitte Orca clocks in at a modest 41 minutes, close to an ideal pop-album length— enough to feel substantial but also leaving the listener wanting more. I bring that up to reiterate my awe of the Dirty Projectors’ unexpected mastery of even the smallest little details of what makes good pop music: pacing, conciseness, brevity, and most of all, confidence.

May 16, 2009: The Hunches, Exit Dreams

I’m a little perturbed by the entry of lo-fi bands into the loudness war over the past couple of years. Times New Viking and Wavves, two fairly high-profile lo-fi bands of late, seem to derive their sonic qualities less from miniscule recording budgets than from redlined overcompression. Open up, say, “So Bored” or “My Head” in Garageband and the song’s waveform will resemble a single oblong block, identical to tracks by Flaming Lips and Metallica and other major-label acts whose recent albums have been held up as offenses to listenability. It could be that that’s just how those albums were originally recorded instead of how they were mastered, but there’s something about the trebly harshness of the sound that makes me suspect that mastering-induced clipping is to blame. That’s why, despite having some decent tunes, I can’t listen to TNV and Wavves albums for more than a track or two before wanting to listen to something else.

Lo-fi needn’t equal unlistenable. Case in point: Exit Dreams, a gnarled slab of brainpan-rattling garage-rock that, despite remaining faithful to a genre that often prides itself on being musically and sonically one-dimensional, not only never wears out its welcome but is actually one of the best-sounding albums of its kind I’ve heard in a long time. On their previous, more conventionally produced albums, The Hunches seemed little more than backbenchers on In The Red’s roster; Exit Dreams ought to elevate them to the level of first-stringers, with a messier, more vibrant sound that pokes holes in garage’s wall of sound to expose the larger, airier spaces that surround it.

While dirty fuzzbomb guitars, clanging reverb, and a singer whose hollers and screams can barely heard above the din are required elements for any garage band, The Hunches have thankfully grown out of using that formula to merely bash out two-minute blitzkriegs. Instead they channel their short attention span disorder into song structures and arrangements that are&;mdash; well, words like complex or elaborate may be overstating the case somewhat, unless compared with the average Jay Reatard track. “Actors” kicks off the album with a queasy, lurching riff that caveman-stomps its way through about two-thirds of its running time before breaking into a noisy motorik sprint to the finish; “Deaf Ambitions”‘ opening tantrum barely lasts a minute before dissolving into a drowsy, dreamy bit of strummy (semi-)acoustic psychedelia.

While there’s nothing wrong with their more straightforward songs (“Your Sick Blooms” and “Pinwheel Spins” pack as many hooks as busted amplifier parts), my favorite tracks end up being more laid-back ones: “Not Invited”‘s sunny jangle is tempered by its stumbling, bleary, morning-after hangover feel; “Fall Drive” sounds uncannily like the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” reincarnated as a thunderstorm; and the epic “Unraveling” sports a similarly damp, drizzly vibe that can’t help but remind me of the Hunches’ hometown of Portland. It’s a shame that Exit Dreams is supposedly the Hunches’ final album— they’re reportedly calling it quits after a handful of West Coast shows in June— but they’re going out on the kind of high note that any band ought to be proud of.

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May 2, 2009: Chores, The Subtle Politics of the Public Hammock

Portland’s Chores is another band with whom I was hoping to play a show while on our aforementioned tour (although it didn’t quite work out this time around), but they didn’t really fit in with the previous post since technically I didn’t discover them through myspace but rather in a live setting, when they played the Knockout back in March. Their sound is total comfort food to me— the kind of ramshackle-yet-anthemic guitar-happy indie-rock made manifest in the 90s by the likes of Pavement and Archers of Loaf— although they also display a refreshingly casual disregard for genre consistency. There’s a bit of Television’s stiff post-punk in “My Own Private Esperanto” and some late-70s-soul urban-cop-show swagger in “New New Deal”; there’s “Super Car”‘s dark, grungy buzz-and-chug, and “Familiar Order”‘s easy-rolling countrified jangle. Of course, Chores’ forte remains big swooning/surging rock such as “Make The World Go Away” and “Touching Can Harm The Art”, with their slightly mathy/angular riffs and shouty choruses.

Preview the entirety of The Subtle Politics of the Public Hammock here, buy it here.

April 26, 2009: Random Walks Through Myspace

In recent weeks, most of my spare time has been consumed by booking a tour for the band I’m in, a side-effect of which is getting to know more about the local scenes in other locales. Myspace is notoriously user unfriendly when it comes to a simple request such as, say, finding all the bands in the San Diego area that call themselves “indie”, have more than a couple hundred friends, and have logged in sometime in the past week. But it’s still the website that every band worth anything has a page at, so I managed to hack and brute-force my way around its limitations and came across some pretty darn good bands. I wasn’t able to set up shows with all of the bands listed below, but most of them were at least friendly and responsive to my emails.

The Weather Machines (Portland)

The Crosswalks (Portland)

Pillow Army (Seattle)

Grand Hallway (Seattle)

Beestings (Seattle)

The Very Most (Boise)

A Crowd of Small Adventures (Las Vegas)

Summer Darling (Los Angeles)

Gray Ghosts (San Diego)

The Moviegoers (San Diego)

Lily White (San Diego)

Honorable mentions (i.e. bands I couldn’t find youtube clips of but you should still check them out): The Awkward Years (Spokane), Olaf Olaf Olaf (Spokane), Dept. of Energy (Seattle), Collapsichord (Seattle), Alligators (Seattle), Alligators (Salt Lake City)

March 1, 2009: Sholi

While the majority of the indie-rock-centric world is just starting to hear about them, those of us who are clued in to the Bay Area music scene have known about Sholi for nigh on three years. I for one have been eagerly awaiting this, their self-titled debut, for just about as long; they’ve been one of the precious few local bands who I thought really deserved wider exposure, and I’m thrilled that Touch & Go/Quarterstick thought so too. So be warned that my expectations are a lot higher than most other people, which means that I will be veering straight through drooling-fanboy territory and into overly-nitpicky-fanboy territory. Like so: Sholi have made an album that ought to rank among the best releases of 2009— and what’s more, it could have been even better.

I’ve been tempted to describe Sholi’s sound as some sort of ongoing conflict of personalities— their dark romantic Blonde Redhead art-rock side as represented by singer/guitarist Payam Bavafa and bassist Eric Ruud, and their muscley Burning Airlines/Faraquet math-rock side as represented by drummer Jon Bafus— and indeed, album opener “All That We Can See” would seem to bear this out, with its elegant minor-key guitar chimes and plaintive vocals sprinkled across a roiling landscape of broken drum equipment. But more often than not, these two sides tend to complement and blur into each other rather than contrast. I’ve compared Jon’s drumming to that of Hella’s Zach Hill before, but honestly, that’s a lazy comparison based more on vague geographic similarities and general ability/willingness to spray percussive shrapnel in all directions. Actually I think Jon is a much more graceful and varied drummer than Hill, taking a more jazz-like approach to kit dismemberment and exhibiting a surprising grasp of the dark art of dynamics— his impressionistic performance on “Spy in the House of Memories” as a good example of such.

Jon’s flashiness tends to overshadow the contributions of the melodic instruments, especially in a live setting; I hope it doesn’t come off as diminishing when I say that Payam and Eric play the straight men in the band. It’s just that their playing styles tend towards the economical, getting a lot of mileage out of ringing arpeggios and snarling drones, and on an emotional level they would seem to be a bit more restrained and deadpan. But by no means does economical imply “simple”, nor should deadpan imply “flat”; Payam’s songs are complex without being flashy, and he and Eric do pull off some pretty great vocal harmonies. And when they do cut loose, they can match Jon flourish for flourish, as on the dizzying, terrifying “Dance For Hours”.

Ah, “Dance For Hours”. It’s the only song on this record that completely crushes, and accurately captures the power of their live show. I’ve been present for performances of “Tourniquet” and “November Through June” where I was convinced that the world was about to end, and while the recorded versions probably sound amazing to virgin ears, I am all too aware of how much better those songs have sounded. To compound my terminal case of Too Much Information Syndrome, I know how long the band spent recording and mixing this album, and I have the nagging feeling that they may have overthought things, overtweaked bits, possibly second-guessed some stuff, and overall might have leached a bit of vitality out of the end product. But please, if you’re hearing Sholi for the first time, don’t take any of this negativity to heart. Instead, look at it this way: if you think the album is good, just wait until you see them live.