MusicWeekend

Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (April 2014, Part 1)

by Lucas Fagen on April 20, 2014

earpods-HOME11Todd Terje has gotten me thinking about Jimmy Buffett, and though I’ll never be a fan, Buffett is unique enough that I really do think he deserves a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Or if they won’t officially admit him, they could have a temporary Jimmy Buffett exhibit, on loan from Miami. They could have a huge room, the floor covered in sand, with fake palm trees lining the walls and the air conditioners simulating a tropical breeze; in addition to You Had to Be There on the speakers there would be the sound of the ebbing and flowing ocean, plus occasional seagull squawks for good measure. The staff working the exhibit would all be dressed as pirates, and in the corner there could be a hired barber who would shave any man’s beard down to a pencil thin mustache. Then, in the gift shop, you could purchase such literary classics as The Jolly Mon and Swine Not? Really, this is a golden opportunity, not to mention a great tourist attraction that would flood Cleveland with devoted Parrotheads. It would go down in history as the finest novelty exhibit ever to grace an American museum.

Sun Kil Moon: Benji

Sun Kil Moon(Caldo Verde, 2014) [BUY]

Like a quieter and also manlier Will Oldham, Mark Kozelek makes expertly introspective songpoetry, the kind of music you’re supposed to listen to at home wrapped in a blanket, sniffling along to his every confession. Once you’ve made the upsetting journey through this harrowing song cycle, you’ll supposedly better understand all the beauty and pain in the world, enlightened by Kozelek’s shocking honesty and willingness to tell it like it is.

What distinguishes this album from dozens of other dull acoustic opuses is candor. Where most anguished romantics disguise their confusion in obscurantist metaphor, Kozelek modestly reports literal anecdotes and naturalistic details and weirdly detached analyses of his feelings, coming right out and saying many things his contemporaries only ever hint at. He’s as committed an expressionist as you’ll find anywhere, and he demonstrates why personal expression in itself is never enough. His slow, inert guitar rustles along in the background, plucking out arpeggiated riffs that repeat endlessly for as long as ten minutes before he starts another song, complete with a new minor variation on the previous melody. Sometimes he introduces a muted, swishing drum pattern, lending texture and dimension though rarely energy to an exceptionally faint and sleepy style of folk ballad. This only happens occasionally, though. His true musical signature is a dazed, drawling baritone that evokes grizzled yet sensitive masculinity as tenderly and acutely as his ruminations on death, decay, and the human condition.

Apparently his stories include autobiographical flourishes, which explains their quotidian realism, and many of his experiences remain genuinely sad. But his literary ambition cheapens their emotional weight, as when he hears that his second cousin has died and proclaims, “In this senseless tragedy, O Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea.”

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

CT192 PerfectPussy Cover(Captured Tracks, 2014) [BUY]

Because sensationalist advertising really does work sometimes, Perfect Pussy became a journalistic scandal on the strength of their genius name, which, like Pussy Riot, has shocked all sorts of people who shrug off Tenacious D, the Butthole Surfers, and Cock & Ball Torture. What’s truly offensive about them is music that electrifies standard headbanger rock with hyperactive intensity, breakneck tempos, the whole shebang.

Like too many indie bands fond of the avant-garde, these hardcore punks lean too far into incoherence. Their white-hot uproar and smashing drum explosions too often blur into fuzzy, blistering static, and though Meredith Graves’s hysterical harangues do contain words and even sentences, they’re all but impossible to hear. Their harsh anarchy isn’t pressed into a defined form that would both convey a message and help release energy. Nevertheless, release energy they do. Like very few indie bands fond of the avant-garde, their incoherence reaches such searing heights of violence it could pass for an aesthetic strategy, crunching and jangling through your speakers and ripping up the wires, so aggressively focused on sheer, absolute noize that their fervor is both exciting and chilling. By obscuring their tunes and shrieking their vocals and welding their instruments into a single propulsive jet of liquid guitar magma, they achieve headlong catharsis so desperate that crisper articulation would only impede their frenzied, joyous spew.

Tougher than Speedy Ortiz and so much smarter than Savages, they generate a furious immediacy that will stick to your ears and tone up your muscles. There are in fact quite a few distinct songs underneath all that chaos. Listen carefully.

Todd Terje: It’s Album Time

Todd Terje(Olsen, 2014) [BUY]

The album cover says it all. Norwegian DJ Terje is a modern-day lounge maestro, crafting exquisitely surreal cocktail kitsch for electro-epicures in paradise. Philip Sherburne’s Rhapsody capsule review calls this record an “imaginary collaboration between Giorgio Moroder and Dr. Seuss”; Terje himself avowedly likes his music “very fruity.” Incredibly, the album itself lives up to that level of hype.

At first, everything here might seem shamelessly vapid. Not only does Terje sidestep the angry abrasions of modern dance music, he compensates with a bright neoburlesque aesthetic that mixes modernist control with quaint nostalgia, and solemn discipline with good cheer. His music seems coldly intellectual in its studied vulgarity, its self-conscious parody of the tacky. But from its foldaway minijazz ensembles to its upbeat percussion overload and squealing space keyboards, from its swinging funk basslines to its fluttering flutes and rah-rah-Rasputin violins, from its salsa rhythms to its minimalist keyboard patterns and sassy horn solos, from the mechanical drum machines to the bright, warm, lively melodies springing and bubbling from their airtight foundations, from the goofy love he has for his hooks and squiggles and sound effects to the arch distancing that makes them so fetching, this is the ultimate collection of postmodern kitsch, sillier than a leisure suit but utterly definitive in its range and ability. To probe Terje’s satire is to succumb to his exuberance.

Knowingly ironic and all the friendlier for it, the gleeful humanity Terje has found in outrageous camp could light up any dancefloor. It’s endlessly listenable. Play it over dinner!

Karmin: Pulses

Karmin(Epic, 2014) [BUY]

After reading Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s one and a half star Karmin review in Rolling Stone, a publication that typically tolerates fashionably prefabricated pop like this, I was having fun imagining a group so shamelessly crass they alienated even those paid to find artistic worth in vacuous product, and played this album eagerly expecting a glorious hook parade. Instead I got a group so shamelessly, idiotically, robotically, crassly inane they alienated even me.

Although their sound is unmistakably slick, and they do eerily resemble Panic! At the Disco in their faster moments, they’re hard to place on a style map. While indeed bellowing a number of grand love songs in both Broadway and karaoke mode, they also flex their robotic swagger all over slinky dance tracks and try their hand at rapping. They switch abruptly from straight-ahead rock grandeur to skittering, syncopated hip-hop rhythms between chorus and verse, causing an awkward strain on their momentum. Their affectless electrobeats fuse the buzzing synthesizers of radio clubstep with the pompous keyboard chords of hit balladry, with syrupy results. Amy Heidemann’s boyish voice packs quite a wallop, though it morphs into a chattering whine on the “R&B” exercises; she steeps her overdubbed megachoruses with voracious arena-goddess emotion. She also harmonizes with vocoded robots and can sing vulnerably if she wants to. Sentimental heartsongs trade off with feisty bangers until you can no longer tell one from the other. Corporate convention gets heightened, apotheosized, and mutated long past recognition.

Maybe “I Want It All” could blend in with Britney and Beyoncé on the radio, but not the obnoxious “Acapella,” and absolutely not the inspirational, anthemic title track. Peppy, bright, nauseating, they swallow genre after commercial genre, epitomizing the bland superschlock that gets churned out in mass to guarantee sales but that also guarantees the eventual demise of the record business.

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