Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Explosions in the Sky - "The Rescue" (LP Review)

First, let's get this out of the way: "The Rescue" is nowhere near the tour de force that is "Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever". But it is still a fine EP and one that deserves to be in your collection. Clocking in at 32 minutes, it is more like an LP than EP, but that's what they call it. And since it is free, there is no reason for you to not download a copy. But we'll get back to that in a bit.

"The Rescue" is volume 21 in the "Travels in Constants" EP series released on Explosion in the Sky's label Temporary Residence Limited. Yeah, I hadn't heard of the series either, but some of the other artists in the series include Low and Mogwai, so that should give you an idea.

"The Rescue" was recorded in eight days (one song per day) and represents a slight departure for them. There are more instruments, a looser approach and even some singing. Well, background vocals only -- nobody sings a lead. The EP was recorded in the Michael James's (bass & guitar) house and has a decidedly more lo-fi, less produced feel. There are no bad songs on this EP, but some of the experiments are more successful than others (e.g., Day Five, in which their original goal was to make the "saddest dance record in the world"). There is a tentative sound to some of these songs that 1) reminds me of Dif Juz (e.g., "Day Eight" vs. Dif Juz's "No Motion"), and 2) is in stark contrast to the ferocity of TWTTTSD.

I could try to describe the tracks, but EITS has extensive notes on their web site about the recording of each song. Suffice to say that the entire EP is an homage to their early experience of being stuck in Syracuse NY for eight days while they awaited a transmission repair on their van. The story is made more explicit on the song "Day 3" through samples from videotapes the band recorded while awaiting the repair.

Originally only available via mail order or at concerts, the EP is now out of print. But EITS has all eight songs available for download from their web site, so there is absolutely no excuse why you don't have this in your collection.

Standout songs: Day Two, Day Three, Day Seven, Day Eight

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 7/10.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

DJ Shadow - "Dark Days" (LP Review)

"Dark Days" is an often overlooked single in the lengthy DJ Shadow discography. Released in 2000 while DJ Shadow was still enjoying the peak of his popularity with 1996's "Endtroducing....." and 1998's "Psyence Fiction", it is arguably the last recording he made in his "original style" and could easily be at home on any of his releases on the Mo' Wax label. After this point, he made a concerted effort to evolve his style: sometimes it worked (2002's "Private Press" and 2003's "Private Repress") and sometimes it did not (2006's "The Outsider").

"Dark Days" also serves as the soundtrack for the Marc Singer documentary of the same name. Technically, the movie featured previously released DJ Shadow music as well, but the "Dark Days" song was recorded especially for this film. The single has two versions of the song: one as an instrumental, and one with sampled dialogue from the film. The latter is especially chilling; it begins with:
When I first came down the tunnel, it lookin' dangerous man,
real dangerous.
Like, I'm scared.
You're on your own down here.
The film is a documentary about the homeless people that lived below ground in the "Freedom Tunnel" in Manhattan. The film is a moving, non-exploitative profile of the people that lived there and the resulting society of the tunnel, as well as their journey out when evicted. A mild spoiler: the film ends at a positive point, even if you suspect the longer story arc eventually won't.

The main sample for the song is Bill Osborn's single "Bamboo and Rice". I've scoured the web and I can't find the original source recording. Almost any thing you find about the artist and song derives from it appearing in "Dark Days". I don't even know when the single was released -- I would guess early to mid 60s given the surf-rock guitar sound. A nice pull from the king of crate digging. The DJ Shadow single itself is out of print and $20 and up is the going price.

Standout tracks: "Main Theme", "Spoken for Mix"

Skip 'em tracks: none.

Final score: 10/10

Bonus links: Dark Days trailer; Interview with Marc Singer, DJ Shadow (special feature from the DVD); first 10 minutes of the film.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Explosions in the Sky - "Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever" (LP Review)

Imagine The Pixies walking into the studio, finding Black Sabbath's instruments and gear (ca. 1973) and then deciding to cover songs by Tortoise. Or maybe it should be Tortoise covering The Pixies. Either way, Explosions in the Sky triangulates somewhere between these three musical influences, with the additional regional influence of Austin, TX. I'm not sure I can describe the Texas, esp. Austin, sound (it is more of an attitude than a specific genre), but you know it when you hear it.

EITS are Mark Smith (guitar), Munaf Rayani (guitar), Michael James (bass and guitar), and Chris Hrasky (drums). As you can infer from the lineup, they play instrumental (taking their Texas laconism to the point of no vocals), guitar-oriented rock. But even with two, sometimes three, guitarists, don't look for any shredding here: they've completely transcended the conventional rock guitar solo and are firmly within the post-rock genre (hence the comparison with Tortoise). Structurally, it is clear they've also listened to their share of NWOBHM bands with their highly regimented, almost martial/marching band arrangements.

EITS is probably most well known for providing the soundtrack for 2004's "Friday Night Lights". A lot of people when first exposed to EITS find this an odd pairing, assuming that EITS represents the alternative, "too cool for sports" set. I get it though. For one, EITS clearly makes soundtrack-sounding music. Secondly, HS football is such a part of the Texas ethos that to have refused the opportunity when it arrived would have been self-negation. But I'll review that LP at a later date...

"Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever" is their 2001 LP, whose very title invites comparisons to Tortoise's 1996 LP "Millions Now Living Will Never Die". TWTTTSD is technically their second LP, although their 2000 debut "How Strange, Innocence" received very limited release. TWTTTSD gives us six songs and 50 minutes of vast, epic, open, organic instrumental music that works the soft-loud-soft formula to its maximum effect. Noise canceling headphones are the best way to listen to this LP: the quiet bits are so subtle and sweet that you have to really stop and pay attention to what they're doing. You'll be tempted to turn up the volume, but be careful. In a minute or two they're going to explode: a majestic, roaring, aural behemoth. And just after the reverberations have rearranged the objects in your room, EITS will be quiet again. Then you will know how apropos the band's name is and realize that they really could not have been named anything other than Explosions in the Sky.

In a band filled with guitarists (all of whom do an excellent job), I have to say the star of the show is drummer Chris Hrasky. Producer Trevor Kampmann certainly did him a favor and put Hrasky out front in the mix, and he is often playing more of a lead than rest of the band. For example, listen to 1:40--2:25 in "Yasmin the Light", 3:00-5:00 of "Have You Passed Through This Night", or 4:50--5:50 of "A Poor Man's Memory" -- you'll nearly forget the guitarists are playing.

The closest thing they have to lyrics is in "Have You Passed Through This Night" where they sample Private Witt's voice over from the movie "The Thin Red Line" (delivered with an appropriate drawl):
This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?
Unkle would also sample this and other dialogue from "The Thin Red Line" in the song "Eye for An Eye" on their 2003 LP "Never, Never, Land", but EITS did it first as well as better.

There are no bad songs on this LP. An unkind critic could argue that the songs are interchangeable, but it is fair to say that if you like one you'll like them all. "Have You Passed Through This Night" stands out because of the movie sample, but honestly the song boundaries are almost arbitrary as each song consists of several movements and if it were presented as a single 50 minute track I would be hard pressed to cut it into six segments.

Standout songs: all. You can find the LP at Grooveshark, but note that the track listing there currently has a lot of errors. You can find a better listing at lala.

Here are the tracks as sourced from YouTube: "Greet Death", "Yasmin the Light" (live), "The Moon is Down", "Have You Passed Through This Night?", "A Poor Man's Memory", "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept".

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 10/10. This is truly a genre-defining LP.