Having climbed up on my soapbox to preach consensus just a week ago, I now give you a fantastic album-of-the-year candidate nobody’s ever heard of. Contra what some other critics are saying, there is no special dearth of new good albums this year, but with one exception they’re all in the same genre. Beyond my personal favorite, I’ve also bonded with Kavinsky, Astronautica, and Gerd Janson. That’s right — it’s another techno month in Fagenland. Anyone reading this on an electronic screen has no right to complain.
Gerd Janson Presents Musik for Autobahns
Rush Hour, 2013 [BUY]
I’m a bit embarrassed to be reviewing an album with this title — it’s not such a far cry from, say, Muzak for Elevators, now is it? But concepts like that never stopped me from being an Eno fan, or a Kraftwerk fan. This album lives up to both, as its extended instrumental sagas achieve a dinky grandiosity that would be totally trivialized by singing or any other human presence.
Somewhere towards the end the really sedative, hypnotic stuff rears its head for a couple tracks, and it’s easy to lose focus on these fourteen compositions if you’re trying too hard. For the most part, though, this is trance music you can remember once you’ve been awakened from your coma. Slow, spacey beads build and build, grinding like the inner gears of giant machines, laying on jittery electroshocks and occasional explosions that last as long as possible, then systematic Euromodernism takes over and everything ventures out into the land of Western classical harmony. Usually these tracks stay deep and subtle, their expression all curiously childlike, and often they’re quite hooky; Tom Trago’s remix of “Next Fase” is one of the catchiest tunes I’ve heard so far this year.
The record definitely goes on for too long, and I’m a little disappointed the Weird Guilders’ “Sentimental Journey” isn’t a Doris Day cover, but this is an arresting piece of arranged musical architecture. Fans of Gottfried Huppertz’s original score to Metropolis should check it out.
The Rough Guide to Samba
World Music Network, 2013 [BUY]
Like too many other “Rough Guides” by World Music Network, this Brazilian compilation goes for range over cohesion. The label brags that it includes traditionalism, Africanism, and disco. Strangely, it also emphasizes the supposedly impressive number of female singers here. It encompasses so many different types of samba you’ll have trouble keeping track of them, racing from one style to the next, unified only by common instruments and a common language.
The biggest Brazilian stars I know are Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, neither of whom shows up here, and much of this album precedes those two major artists. Whether the “roots” of samba or not, the record does embody a laid-back, inclusive, swinging tone that has become a symbol and almost a stereotype of Brazilian music on the international scene. In the hands of self-styled connoisseurs like the label compilers, this ethos often translates to a tasteful rapture, a kind of gushy sensory escapade for aesthetes only. That’s not to disparage the actual music, though — clean and romantic it may be, but its vocal hooks, lilting strings, and the occasional organ or flute all glide with world-weary lyricism, making for a stylishly melodic, deceptively simple popform that pleases and relaxes. Even if nothing here seems to fit in with anything else, many songs are still worth your time.
A good two-thirds of these tracks achieve a knotty inseparability of melody and rhythm. These I take to be the “roots” of samba; you get a similar vitality with early rock & roll, not to mention indigenous African music. The rest is for aesthetes only.
Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park
Mercury Nashville, 2013 [BUY]
Skeptical though I was to find a pop star who seems human, Nashville Star contestant Musgraves easily won me over, as she commands all the colloquial charm and talky banter of a natural writer. Her album flows by so naturalistically it takes some time to realize how carefully worked out it is. It’s calculated to the max, and all the more spontaneous for it.
Musgraves made her mark with last year’s “Merry Go Round,” which with its cheerful acoustic strumming and clear wordplay somehow sneaked into circulation on country radio despite knocking the all-American country-radio life in a rather nasty way: “We get bored so we get married”, ouch. The rest of the record is equally vivid. Always avoiding the overkill beloved of her contemporaries, she sticks to folkie guitar-and-harmonica, smoothing everything out with sharp pedal steel, making for a lightness that suits her warmly happy songwriting. Also, she has to be the most progressive singer in Nashville. Her proud avowals of smoking joints don’t mean too much, since country music has been full of weed since Willie Nelson. Her support of girls kissing girls is a lot rarer, and it earns her the right to be nice.
Bright and unusually positive, she’s a strong individual personality in a field that’s scared of them. She’s pretty funny, too. “If you save yourself for marriage you’re a bore,” she asserts. “If you don’t save yourself for marriage you’re a … horrible person.”
A$AP Rocky: Long.Live.A$AP
PoloGrounds/RCA, 2013 [BUY]
Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky sounds like one of the dangerous homies in Kendrick Lamar’s “The Art of Peer Pressure,” who convince Lamar to do drugs and break into people’s houses. His vocal style and his musical style are identical to Lamar’s, with the same lighthearted tone, just lacking the social consciousness.
Rocky has only one musical trick, but it’s a great one: he sings all his choruses through some computer effect that lowers the pitch a couple octaves, a deep Clyde Smith grunt that supplies most of the musicality here. Often during his verses it’s still rhythmically groaning in the background, especially on “Goldie” and “PMW.” Otherwise, though, the record glides on drugged-out electropatterns that tend towards the slow, the creepy, the unengaging. Over the course of these twelve songs, despite the large number of featured guest rappers, everything gradually sinks down into a soft, boggy atmosphere. It’s occasionally relieved by clever wordplay — “I love bad bitches that’s my fuckin problem, and yeah I like to fuck I got a fuckin problem” — but he does just love those “bitch”-“dick” rhymes. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the extent of his thematics.
In a dark-spooky mode, the beats highlight the violence in what would otherwise come across as purely pro forma boasting. If Rocky et al sound more like ghouls than gangstas, they probably are.
Monoswezi: The Village
Riverboat, 2013 [BUY]
The band name means “one world”; band members hail from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Norway, and Sweden. They claim to combine traditional African music with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and other nameless Western influences. Rather than unifying those two styles through minimalist repetition, which is what I was expecting from the bio, they unify them through New Age spiritualism.
Eager Graceland fans watch out, because this is the true sound of toothless universality. The lead singer’s high wails are quite arresting, and she often sneaks out from under the music’s shell to insist you notice how intense her singing is. By contrast, the drums, xylophones, mbiras, flutes, and so on shuffling along in the background remain polite and utterly sterile, vaguely pretty in their quietude. Often their friendly melodies just fail to kick in, played with such pathetic gentility they turn cloying, or simply nondescript. Funny that on an album celebrating global diversity, all the songs sound the same.
One day when we are all one, and every being has transcended its cultural limitations, we’ll all make music like this. But I doubt it. It is due to a willful ignorance of such limitations that music like this exists in the first place.
Modestep: Evolution Theory
Polydor, 2013 [BUY]
This London drumstep group introduced themselves in 2011 with the excellent “Sunlight,” and took two years to record enough material for an album. The resulting “live electronic rock” fills their straightforward hardcore techno with turgid, earth-shaking significance. If you already find musical robots too impersonal, what to do when they finally become real boys and start charging off to save the universe?
Despite the album cover, this band is not officially associated with Transformers, but they share the same worldview. Clash‘s Will Salmon once compared rival band Nero’s far catchier Welcome Reality to a Michael Bay movie, and though Salmon intended that as a diss, dubstep’s keyboard whomping often does seem the musical equivalent of Bay’s over-the-top action thrillers. There is a cult of film critics who revere Bay as a cutting-edge innovator — Filmophilia‘s Sverrir Sigfusson, for example, called him a “genius of absurdist cinema,” the idea being that with giant explosions and fight scenes, these movies completely overload your senses, hence opening you up to new aesthetic insights. So if Welcome Reality is a cathartic grenade, this album resembles what ordinary people think Michael Bay movies are like. Its electronic rumble suffers from dubstep-is-metal syndrome, and its tempo shifts certainly suffer from dubstep-is-prog-rock syndrome, but for something truly unprecedented, try dubstep-is-arena-rock syndrome. They specialize in inflated, exaggerated synth punches, featuring soulfully tortured vocals from one of those prissy-passionate British metrosexuals.
After the sneak success of “Sunlight,” it’s clear what happened — they decided to cross over to the pop charts, but somehow landed in power-ballad territory. It’s a bit loud for that, though. Maybe video game soundtrack companies will take interest?
Mosley/Interscope, 2013 [BUY]
Talk about British invasion. For Coldplay and Snow Patrol to make this specific type of pleasant, feelgood, floaty adult contemporary makes sense, as it’s a staple of English culture. For this Colorado band to replicate it exactly is audacious. Because they’re doing it deliberately, they’re a lot more masterful about it, but I still hope nobody else in the States thinks this is a good idea. This is pop music, not a tanning salon.
Ryan Tedder and Zach Filkins have often been rather sappy in that irritatingly antimaterialistic way, and sure enough, the record kicks off with a chorus that goes “No more counting dollars, we’ll be counting stars.” Tune out the lyrics, though, and they’re immensely listenable, dreamy guitar-band pop that’s rarely memorable and always melodious. How producer Tedder got the instruments to all coalesce into a sleek, glossy wave I have no idea, but it’s a great technical trick, and no matter how embarrassing it is to like this stuff, I caught myself grinning at how skillful and shiny it is. That was only after having tuned out the lyrics. Revealed as the musical expression of romantic cliché, their popsongs quickly become heartsongs, their lounge-music medium unironically inauthentic.
Most of the album is pretty unremarkable, but it closes with a stroke of brilliance. One of the most accidentally glorious songs of the past couple years, “Preacher” is greatly entertaining kitsch. Its enormous chorus, one of the most bathetic things I’ve ever heard, goes “When I was a kid my grandfather was a preacher, he talked about God yeah he was something like a teacher.” Come on, admit it. That’s pretty funny.
100% Silk, 2013 [BUY]
Nomadic pseudo-DJ Gabriel Cyr has made an album as warm and inviting as most techno is repetitive, treacly, and robot-fetishistic. Essentially it’s yet another evocative-escapist respite, only it’s led by hyperactive drum machines. The melodies stay with you, and it finds meaning and beauty in the most ordinary white noise.
Cyr doesn’t sell too many records because his music has nothing to do with technological alienation. Rather, he’s reinvented the classic theoretical achievement of electronic music, namely using machines to replicate nature, and auralized this achievement with a digitally warped Shadow-derived chromatic kaleidoscope. The shrill, wailing synthesizers, the syncopated, off-center clicking, the buzzing electrohorns, the buzzing electrobass, even the inarticulate pitch-corrected mumbling all lock into each other over slinky breakbeats, echoing around in their artificial space, roaring in your face with dense physicality. This is a jittery, bouncy, mechanized take on free jazz, a richly playful music that goes popping all over the place even as it coheres into one full body.
Influences named include “wood on metal, thunder, smokestacks, breath, car alarms, bleed, subways, ground hum,” and the list goes on. Sounds like trying to fall asleep in Lower Manhattan to me, an oddly enlightening experience that excites and soothes unlike any other. Besides this record, of course.