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Joel's Favorite Records of 2014

Happy new year, everyone! With less than two hours left in 2014, here are my favorite records of 2014:

Jo Johnson — Weaving :: Lately it's been rather unusual for me to find a favorite album by an artist I've never heard of solely on the basis of a review. However I have to credit my discovery of Weaving to a writeup by Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne—whose comparisons to the likes of Klaus Schulze, William Basinski, and Selected Ambient Works II had me rushing to the iTunes store. The parallels made by Sherburne are well-suited: Johnson's subtle compositions made from synth arpeggios and looped drones are very much in line with early '70s synthesizer music, however her use of studio manipulation and digital effects help prevent Weaving's five songs from being a simple nod to the past.

Damon Albarn — Everyday Robots :: Fans of Blur tend to point toward Parklife, an album made more than 20 years ago, as a kind of early pinnacle and slow fade of Albarn's career. I think that's an unfortunate read on his back-catalog—partly because I think he's made more interesting if not better records than that one—but also because the progression of his career looks more to me like a sine wave than a mountain, marked by several peaks and troughs from one decade to the next.

Everyday Robots, the latest high point in Albarn's discography and his first solo LP in 25 years, manages expand upon the best things about Blur's last record, Think Tank, an album loved by seemingly no one but myself. What I appreciate here is that he's taken all of the melancholy from his first band's final recordings and stripped out the unnecessary dance club embellishments. What's left are twelve simple, artful tracks of longing and loss, all emotion laid bare with nowhere to hide.

Eno & Hyde — Someday World :: In spite of the attention piled upon the other excellent Eno & Hyde collaboration of 2014, I actually prefer Someday World as the better of the two releases. The excellent hooks and off-kilter arrangements remind me a little bit of Eno's early-'90s collaboration with John Cale, which might point to the only thing working against Someday World: it does sound a little bit dated. And yet, it also contains some of the best melodies put to record this year, including one from a favorite song of 2014,"Daddy's Car."

Godflesh — A World Lit Only By Fire :: When I was sixteen I spent almost an entire winter listening to nothing but Godflesh, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Swans, so my excitement over the existence of A World Lit Only By Fire is tinted with more than a little bit of nostalgia. Godflesh's decade plus of inactivity seems to have diminished little of their viciousness; in fact, this might be their toughest-sounding record since 1991's Slavestate EP, if not their debut (which is probably the most similar-sounding record in their catalog).

Plaid — Reachy Prints :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) Of all the great albums that Warp Records released this year (including Aphex Twin's excellent Syro and Clark's self-titled LP), this one might be my favorite. This record sounds weirder and more melodic than past efforts, and also feels like the most human record they're ever made.

Aphex Twin — Syro :: I can't imagine there being a fan of '90s electronic music who wasn't absolutely floored by the out-of-nowhere release of Syro. Personally, his 1994 landmark Selected Ambient Works II is about as important of an album as I can imagine, and given the fact that Richard D. James seemed to have retired the Aphex Twin moniker for good made Syro's quick announcement and subsequent release all the more shocking.

What we're left with after picking our jaws up off the floor is one of the most focused albums of RDJ's career. James seems to bargaining on the notion that playing to expectations without pushing the envelope too hard is the safest way to make a comeback, and to that end Syro's straightforward beats can play a bit like Aphex-by-numbers. But this solid collection of techno tracks, which emphasizes melody in a way that's jazzier and proggier than almost anything he's done before, still feels like a new variation on his core body of work.

Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 2 :: For the second year in a row, Killer Mike and El-P craft an absolute stunner. RTJ2 manages to tread the line between peculiarity and accessibility to a wonderful effect, tinting the boom-bap of early '80s hip hop with hints of oddball sci-fi, electroclash, and '90s techno; the result is one of the most thoughtful, funny, and strange hip hop albums I've heard in ages.

Beck — Morning Phase :: It's unfortunate that so much that's been written about Morning Phase has to do with its parallels with 2002's Sea Change, not because the similarity isn't accurate, but because it set up unreasonable expectations for Hansen's latest album to deliver upon. The bad news here is that it doesn't and probably couldn't live up to Sea Change's near-perfect balance of melancholy orchestral folk and retro-future studio trickery. However, I've still managed to listen to Morning Phase more than just about anything else I bought in 2014, and have found its simple melodies strangely captivating and surprisingly comforting.

To Rococo Rot — Instrument :: One of my all-time favorite groups, TRR sadly just announced their split after a near 20-year run. Though I'm disappointed that I'll no longer be hearing records from these guys, I'm glad that Instrument saw the light of day. It's one of their most distinctive records in that it's the first to prominently feature vocals (from the legendary no-wave guitarist and songwriter Arto Lindsay); it also feels a lot more natural, making greater use of live drums than on their last few.

I sort of feel like To Rococo Rot fell under a lot of people's radar in the U.S., which is a shame—their hybrid take on post-rock and techno would surely appeal to anyone who loves Tortoise, or Battles, or The Notwist—but at least we got 8 excellent records out of them before they called it quits.

Golden Retriever — Seer :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I spent about two weeks listening to nothing but this album back in April, a duo whose strange combination of saxophone and analog synthesizer bring to mind Terry Riley, John Zorn and early Kraftwerk. Though the melodies on this record are excellent, however it's the long, drawn out moments of abstraction that I find most breathtaking.

St Vincent – St Vincent :: With her fourth, self-titled release, Annie Clark makes her most accessible record yet, dialing up the hooks and pairing back the more progressive moments of her first three recordings. There's something to be missed of St. Vincent's move away from the sideways orchestral pop of Actor (perhaps my favorite album of the last decade). But Clark's wonderfully bizarre guitar work on her fourth album—which simultaneously conjures the avant-jazz abstractions of Marc Ribot and the trebly, razor-sharp post-punk of Big Black—is a welcome twist for a batch of such tuneful songs.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense :: (Originally posted via IndieBeat music blog) I think it's safe for me to say that Wild Beasts are probably my favorite band of the last 5 years, and their latest doesn't disappoint. Here they've streamlined the melodies even further from 2011's Smother, making for an album that's more ominous than somber. And as much as I love Hayden Thorpe's theatrical croon, drummer Chris Talbot is their secret weapon; it takes a lot of guts to play drums as minimally as he does, and I think his restraint is a big part of why this album is so spectacular.

 

Here are some other records I enjoyed:
Xiu Xiu - Angel Guts, Red Classroom
Clark - Clark
The Notwist - Close To The Glass
Sisyphus - Sisyphus
Warpaint - Warpaint
The Antlers - Familiars
Fujiya & Miyagi - Artificial Sweeteners
Fennesz - Becs
Spoon - They Want My Soul
TV On The Radio - Seeds
Thee Oh Sees - Drop
 

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Map Ref 05: Uncharted Waters

This is a tough song for me to write about: not because of its lyrical content (which is, admittedly, fairly personal), but because I have no fucking clue as to how the track ended up where it did.

To put it another way—"Uncharted Waters" went through lots of iterations. I mean lots. At different points over my two years of writing, I made demos for "Uncharted"  which resembled "Idioteque" by Radiohead, "Sporting Life" by Sea & Cake, "We've Been Had" by the Walkmen, and "Pilot" by the Notwist. After I arrived at the rough arrangement that's on the record, I tried the song with live drums all the way through, then only in part of the song. I added acoustic guitar, then took the guitars out. I recorded the vocals at 128bpm, then at 120, then at 131.

You get the idea.

"Uncharted Waters" was a slog until the very end. About 9 months into writing the record I reached something of a breaking point and had a sincere crisis of confidence, which nearly led me to stop working altogether. This happened during a writing session at the house of my collaborator and friend Steve, who advised me, rightfully, to step back for a while and take a break (an event which I discuss at length during a podcast interview with Nicholas Young of The Machine). His specifically suggested that I try working on some other kind of creative endeavor to free up my mind.

So I did exactly that.

The result of this time away from writing Geography actually turned into another record altogether. During that 2-week period I had fun toying with a Korg R3 and Ableton Live, making abstract, rhythmless sound experiments inspired by Merzbow and Sam Prekop's excellent Old Punch Card. The results of those sessions are going to be released next year under the name Contretemps, the second full-length offering from my label Safety Records.

But back to "Uncharted Waters." The recommendation to take some time off worked, and not too long after that I found the arrangement that is on the record. It's one of my favorites from Geography, too, so perhaps it was worth the heartache.

 

With regard to most of the other tracks from the LP, I can tell you *exactly* which songs I was listening to as reference points. Not here: "Uncharted" reminds me most of Eno's Another Green World—and though I listened to this album throughout the making of Geography, it wasn't necessarily used as a specific template. I will say that my liberal use of EBow here (as well as on other songs) is very much inspired by Archer Prewitt's solo work, as well as his guitar playing in Sea & Cake. The drums weren't actively inspired by Radiohead's "There There," however after hearing Mike play through the drum pattern on a live kit, I realized that I was unintentionally referencing this track.

The only active reference was for the drumless breakdown—taking place about two-thirds through the song's runtime—which borrows heavily from the gauzy, corroded textures of Fennesz' Black Sea. It's a beautiful and sometimes harrowing album, one which seems to perfectly capture the feeling of being lost at sea.

 

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Map Ref 03: To Remember

A couple of days ago I was reading a 2002 interview with one of my favorite directors, Gone Girl's David Fincher, who somewhat surprisingly revealed that if he "could be anyone, it would be Brad Pitt." It was surprising to me to read that one of Hollywood's finest filmmakers might not be perfectly comfortable in his own skin—that he might sometimes lament the qualities that he thinks he lacks but wishes he embodied—and it got me wondering who I would want to be if I were any songwriter in music.

And I think that my answer is Ben Gibbard.

To be clear, I don't want to live Gibbard's life, or sing like he does (which, I admit, I already kind of do) and I don't fantasize about fronting Death Cab For Cutie. Rather, I aspire to have the kind of storytelling ability that he demonstrates in his songs; the ease with which he shapes simple events into nuanced, evocative, relatable narratives is, well, brilliant. And it should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to Geography that his influence can be heard all over the record I made.

"To Remember" demonstrates this influence perhaps more than any other in City States' catalog. Thematic devices aside, it probably sounds more like a DCFC track than any other I've written**, and I will fully admit to having listened to lots of Transatlanticism while working on the arrangement. As for the song's subject: I've devoted a lot of time in previous blog entries and interviews discussing the story behind "To Remember", so I don't want to spend this post belaboring the theme of my father's death. However, I don't know that I've ever been as forthright in my emotions via City States as I am here, and the songs on Death Cab's first four albums, for better or worse, really helped give me the confidence to push forward with that.

I'm not without reservation in doing so. Sometimes I listen to "To Remember" and cringe a little, its sentimentality grating on the more measured aspects of my songwriting tastes; I certainly struggled with this issue while writing the lyrics, but I specifically recall having a "to hell with it" moment where I decided that the risk of looking foolish wasn't greater than the song's thematic importance to the album as a whole, or its personal meaning for me.

Which leads me to another quote I recently read from Fincher about embracing the imperfections of one's work: “I never fall in love with anything. I really don’t, I am not joking. ‘Do the best you can, try to live it down’, that’s my motto."

Do the best you can, try to live it down. After finishing this record, I can certainly relate.


**Much to my chagrin, lots of people hear traces of the Postal Service on "To Remember"; while I do indeed recognize this song's parallel with many cuts from Give Up, I have generally made a pointed effort to avoid danceable, disco-oriented beats that many people think of when imagining what electronic music sounds like. Much moreso than the Postal Service, the electro-pop influence people are hearing was far more influenced by The Notwist, 13 & God, and R.E.M.'s album Up than from Gibbard and Tamborello's collaboration.

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