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This Land Is Your Land 2
Julianna Barwick with Vasillus – 7th Street Entry (Minneapolis, MN) – Thursday, April 10, 2014
A weird, wonderful night. For one thing, Barwick’s keyboard stand collapsed in the middle of “Crystal Lake” and all her gear plummeted to the floor, leaving her standing there breathless as some discordant notes decayed and the song’s twinkling loop continued to cycle, mockingly. More telling was an earlier moment when the venue’s sound system cut out for a brief moment and Barwick’s loud, enveloping music gave way to total silence. If the electronics fail and no live sound remains, it stands to reason that the performer could be described as an electronic musician, and I enjoyed, if that’s the word, this reminder of the basic premise of Barwick’s art.
(Aside: I was recently cataloging some LPs of the 70s, that era when an artist might state their intentions with a personal message on the record jacket, and I came across one in which the artist wrote that, because female musicians are only ever viewed as singers, she had made an instrumental album. Forty years later, Barwick makes music whose raw material is her own voice, but her primary work lies in the way she shapes that material. It would be easy to mischaracterize her, but her wordlessness appears hopeful, a vote of confidence in her listeners. She doesn’t make statements but she has phonemes at her disposal, so when, for example, someone in the audience won’t stop loudly talking, she can make her mysterious deployment of consonants and vowels a little more pointed and employ a sshhh. Bravo!)
The close-up view of her process, during her opening song, was something I’ve been waiting for, and though I should’ve closed my eyes and absorbed the sound, it was fascinating to watch as she chose which phrases to loop, which to leave as unique occurrences, as she built toward the breaking point, the threshold of vocal saturation that requires new, higher notes to cut through the swarm. Of course, in addition to manipulating her voice, she often adds other elements, and though I’m still not totally sold on the piano dyads that punctuate much of her latest Nepenthe, nor the ensuing transcendent mode of the songs, I can’t say that the experience of being among people and listening to complicated, beautiful wordless music was anything but amazing, the sum of the energy in the room.
Vasillus opened the night with apocalyptic intonations of the Lord’s Prayer over industrial beats, and yet the effect was so massive and calming that the duo quickly joined Dead Can Dance and Boards of Canada as artists I could conceivably keep listening to all day, and for eternity.
The Men – 7th Street Entry – Monday, April 14, 2014
The way they produce their albums and frame their melodic affinities gives their discography a hardcore-to-classic rock narrative, but I suspect, having only seen them just this once, that their live show remains mostly unchanged. Basically they’re loud, and the music shines through in vivid fragments; a sort of observer effect, any attempt to capture their sound necessarily changes it. Before making any final estimation of the new Tomorrow’s Hits, I was waiting to hear the songs tested live, but now I can see those are two separate things and I’ll have to continue enjoying Tomorrow’s Hits, chunk of plastic, on its own terms. Listeners who don’t care about songwriting will be able to call the album life affirming, whatever that means, and once again compare The Men to crashing bores like Japandroids, but live they’re a world apart, more interested in ritual than in transformation. I enjoyed learning who sings what, but the band remains essentially anonymous, aloof, unconcerned with their effect. I wish they’d applied that attitude more rigorously to their encore cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which had a bit too much shouting, not enough drawling, but no matter, their originals sing.
Kool A.D. – Word O.K.
I automatically like any album that contains the line “all language is metaphor” and then the artist declaring himself the “best rapper in the world.” I already love this one, because of the way that kind of balance of bullshit and statement-making (“I ain’t got shit to say,” he says on the same song, called “Open Letter,” before imploring other rappers to “edit more”) becomes a guiding principle. Kool A.D. goes long here, Kurt Vile-style, over beats “more complex than you might want to give it credit for,” and just as Vile refuted punk ideals only to make an album that sounded more like a punk thing than anything else I heard last year, Kool A.D.’s refutation of the possibility of saying anything definitive makes Word O.K. sort of definitive. That includes the album’s release strategy, which ostensibly puts it at the same level of interest as its own collection of outtakes, Not O.K., while trusting the listener to properly assess the value of something they can have for free. Anyway, it’s great to hear Kool A.D. stretch out on longer songs, keep pushing forward with a train of thought, not allow himself to change his mind, and the beats easily bear that kind of weight. Interestingly, the two songs produced by Toro Y Moi are the two where the beats seem a bit put on—“The Front,” with its back in the days vibe, so goofy and overdone that it seems certain someone will rip the record out from under the needle and tell us the joke, but it just keeps going; “Tight,” so bleak it allows Kool A.D. to imitate Future’s hiccups—but the sense of conviction, whether or not it’s undercut by irony and allusion, is unusually striking.
EMA – The Future’s Void
Another clumsy, over-determined title for another excellent album. The point here is that EMA is not a poet, so her language requires music to make it meaningful, and when that happens I’m once again unable to find any flaw in the technique or the writing, whether or not it’s “on-the-nose.” I can’t think of any artist I’d trust more to rewrite “This Land is Your Land” (on “Solace”) or recast “Taps” (on “Dead Celebrity”).
The Afghan Whigs – Do to the Beast
Not exactly the Afghan Whigs I remember but I’ll listen to Greg Dulli under any name, especially if he keeps allowing those pubescent leaps in his voice. Absent an original guitarist, the band wisely doesn’t try to give the album a defining guitar sound but leans more heavily on drums, bass and keyboard. As counterpoint to Dulli’s yowls the music serves nearly as well as anything that came before, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that was always the point.
Kim Deal & Morgan Nagler – “The Root” / “Range on Castle”
Finally an entry in her singles series that’s as trivial as perhaps the project was always supposed to be, but if Deal’s happy, I’m happy. There are plenty of reasons to return to these two songs: On “The Root,” only Deal could imagine such a wide gulf between a drumbeat and a guitar line, and only her voice could bridge it; angelic voices gather around the hard sounds of “Range on Castle,” and there’s a wealth of beauty in the details. The arrangement couldn’t be more basic, but no moment happens twice.
De La Soul – Smell the DA.I.S.Y.
Old verses set to J Dilla beats, and though at first I had some trouble tracking the changes enough to bring the music into focus, the tape unmistakably hits gold in its final two cuts. First “No More No Less” floats verses from “The Magic Number” over rattling, detuned sounds, jubilant in new and strange ways, and then “Marvin Jaye” intersperses the namesake’s “Sexual Healing” with bits of “Eye Know,” loosely synced to a slipshod beat. How could they do that to the song I once posed as the apex of human culture, untouchable? A: They own it.
Woods – With Light and With Love
I missed all their albums between Songs of Shame and this one, but With Light opens with momentum, clarity and modesty enough to make the band’s prolific output easy to square, and gradual refinement of a sound easy to deduce. Jeremy Earl, as his voice grows confidence, begins to recall Sloan’s Jay Ferguson, which makes me think that, in the company of a similarly impressive crew of songwriters and singers (heck, he’s got Kevin Morby), his band would be an unstoppable force, but that, as it stands, they’re eyeing longevity on their own terms.
School of Language – Old Fears
As is sometimes the case with David Brewis’s main band Field Music, everything here sounds clipped, every sound a sharp peak in the mix. It’s a kind of musical pointillism: up close it overtaxes the brain, but from the right distance it assembles into a nice, seamless groove. Old Fears, sharp in another way, can approximate pretty much any 1970s or 80s funk, rock ‘n’ roll or punk LP of Brewis’s choosing, and it’s especially compelling when it softens slightly and begins to suggest Eno’s Before and After Science, even Another Green World.
The Stevens – A History of Hygiene (2013)
A mere 13 minutes of music on an earlier self-titled EP inspired quite a bit of thinking about the nature of bands and posterity, so a debut LP with 3-4 times more music promises a lot to mull over, and delivers: at least a dozen song titles I wish I’d thought of (“Legend in My Living Room” demands a great song, but the fact that it’s a cool minute-long instrumental theme doesn’t disappoint me), and more importantly a cut-and-paste approach to the Flying Nun catalog, sewn up with the impetuous logic of an early or late Guided by Voices album. I still like these guys best when they’re sounding vulnerable, even threatened, and Hygiene has a few of those Dan Treacy moments I loved on their EP, but that doesn’t stop the album from being generally a noisy, vital affair.
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