Sunday, January 27, 2013

This Mortal Coil - "Song to the Siren" (the song remains the same)

I've already given a short summary of the history and focus of This Moral Coil in my review of their initial 1983 EP "Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust".  Originally the B-side to the EP, "Song to the Siren" was so well-received that it became the A-side to the 7" single.  In part through use in commercials, "Song to the Siren" became a moderate hit (in relative terms, anyway) for This Mortal Coil. 

Originally written by folk singer Tim Buckley, my first exposure was the TMC verison.  But I've only recently discovered the many other versions of this song.  Here is an incomplete list in roughly chronological order:

Tim Buckley - 1968, studio 1970: Danette pointed out the original, folk version is midway between Pat Boone's and TMC's. 

Pat Boone - 1969: No, really.  A disturbingly bland, lifeless version. 

TMC - studio 1983live 1983: The canonical version; Elizabeth Fraser turns in an achingly beautiful rendition.

Damon & Naomi - 2001: The former Galaxie 500 members give a trademark slowcore version.

Sinead O'Connor - 2010: Clearly inspired by the TMC version.

Bryan Ferry - studio 2010, live 2010: This sounds exactly like you'd expect a Bryan Ferry version to sound like. 

Brendan Perry - live 2011: Perry is 1/2 of Dead Can Dance, who were a central figure in the 4AD / TMC sound.

Monday, January 14, 2013

School of Seven Bells - "Ghostory" (LP Review)

David Byrne has a TED talk about music in context: how music is shaped by the environment in which it is intended to be experienced.  Music intended for the outdoors, dive bars, concert halls, etc. are best experienced in those environments and do not necessarily translate well into other environments.

There is more to his argument and I encourage you to read it (his blog is always engaging on a variety of topics, only a few of which are about music), but I'll use context as the motivation for this review.  Less than a year ago I was driving in my car and listening to 96.1, pretty much the only local option for alternative music on the radio, not counting specific shows on public radio like "Out of the Box".   Now keep in mind that the definition of "alternative" is contextually dependent as well.  96.1 is a pretty good station, but they have to sell commercials like everybody else and the Hampton Roads market isn't that big, so there is a definite limit to just how "alternative" things get. 

So when I heard "Lafaye" (it was either that or "Love Play") from School of Seven Bells on the car radio, it caught my attention.  I fired up my iphone app to find out who it was and made a note of it for future exploration.  "Ghostory" is the third LP from the band, but somehow I had not heard of them.  The band has an interesting story: originally Benjamin Curtis and identical twins Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, "Ghostory" is their first LP without Claudia.  I did some reading and sampled some YouTube videos, and then added the LP to my next Amazon order. 

So here's the point about context: the threshold for "cool" and "alternative" is apparently much lower in my car radio than it is in my home collection.  "Ghostory" is not a bad LP, and there really aren't any bad songs.  But what sounded so engaging while driving around town is really just a by-the-numbers imitation Cocteau Twins, albeit with productions values updated by 20+ years.  I love the Cocteau Twins (and the whole 4AD sound) but if you have some of the more accessible Cocteau Twins LPs like "Heaven or Las Vegas", you're not going to hear anything new on "Ghostory".  It's all there: ethereal vocals, otherworldly soundscapes, the dreamy soundtrack for some yet-unmade film; the notable exception is that Alejandra does not convey the joy that Elizabeth Fraser brings to the Cocteau Twins.

Somehow, reviews by Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound, and Stereogum all miss the CT/4AD similarity. To me it could not be any more obvious than if they had named the LP "Remixed Ghosts of Heaven or Las Vegas".  One of the reviews points out that "Ghostory" is a concept LP about a woman named "Lafaye" and the "ghosts" in her life... screw it, I'm already bored.

Standout songs: "Love Play", "Lafaye", "Scavenger" (live, acoustic version). 

Other songs: most are available in this YouTube playlist.

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 6/10.  With a nod to David Byrne, "Innovative in Michael's Car" != "Innovative in Michael's Home".  Suitable for background listening.

Cocteau Twins Bonus links: "Heaven or Las Vegas", "Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires", "I Wear Your Ring" -- see my point?

Friday, January 4, 2013

DJ Shadow - "The Less You Know, The Better" (LP review)

First, let's get this out of the way: at the risk of damning with faint praise, "The Less You Know, The Better" is much, much better than 2006's dreadful "The Outsider".  Second, owning easily a linear foot or more of his considerable discography, I'm no casual DJ Shadow fan.

OK, now I'll begin with a slight detour.  A while back we watched Kevin Smith's storytelling special "Too Fat For 40".  Paraphrasing from memory, Smith said something to the effect that classic films like "Clerks" (1994) and "Chasing Amy" (1997) were the kind of films the he could make in his early- and mid-20s, based on who he was and where he was but the successful, 40 year old Kevin Smith simply can't make those kinds of films again.

I can't help but compare Kevin Smith to Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow.  Perhaps DJ Shadow simply can no longer make landmarks like 1996's "Endtroducing....." or 1994's "What Does Your Soul Look Like", both of which Davis also made in his early- and mid-20s.  DJ Shadow has stated many times that he wants to move on from "Endtroducing....." and not be stuck in that rut.  I get & respect that; however, it has just occurred to me that's he stuck in another rut, an anti-"Entroducing....." rut.  "The Less You Know, The Better" is simply "The Private Press", take 3*.

"The Private Press" is where Shadow introduced his current stripped-down, sparse sound.  It wasn't as dense, and incorporated fewer samples and instead focused on more subtle changes (not unlike Plastikman).  It worked on "The Private Press" (which I admit didn't fully make sense to me until it was paired with 2003's remix LP "The Private Repress"), in part because all the songs had a unified vision (which I can only describe using words like "clinical" or "antiseptic").  "The Outsider" continued that sound, but with an unfocused or unclear vision and too many guests, many of whom were -- let me check my desk reference, yes I can use this phrase -- "sucka MCs".

Fortunately there are no sucka MCs on TLYKTB.  But the lack of focus is still a problem; it is almost as if Shadow approached this LP like it was a mix LP and points were awarded for clever genre-bending.  In comparison, 1998's "Psyence Fiction" was a grab bag of guest artists and their different styles, but the unifying theme could be classified as "the soundtrack to the weird sci-fi movie that only James Lavelle can see".

On TLYKTB, rather than prove his command of his record collection by sampling from various genres for the creation of something entirely new, he's "adding to this pile, whether [he] wants to admit it or not".  Some examples:
  • "Border Crossing" -- this sounds like the kind of uninspired hip-hop / metal cross over stuff that formed the basis of 1997's surprisingly bland "Spawn: The Album".  This song is very similar to "Artifact" from "The Outsider" (that's bad); sadly this just doesn't slam like "Drums of Death" from "Psyence Fiction"
  • "I Gotta Rokk" -- songs that talk about rocking typically don't; this does not compare favorably to, say, "The Number Song" which really does rock
  • "Scale It Back" -- technically this is Little Dragon guesting on a DJ Shadow song, but this could easily be the other way around
Some of the songs are pretty good:
The worst song on here is "Give Me Back The Nights", based on a spoken word, teenage screed of unknown origin.  I can't tell if it is supposed to be serious or a humorous Corey Flood tribute, but it doesn't work in either context.  In 1994 he used a fevered prison recording in the break for "Lost and Found"; it made no sense either but was used to better effect.

In summary, this is a good but not essential record. It does remove the bad taste of "The Outsider", but when I compare "The Less You Know, The Better" to recent innovative releases from artists like Andy Stott (e.g., "We Stay Together", "Passed Me By") or Balam Acab (e.g., "See Birds"), I can't help but think of a 40 year old Kevin Smith.

Standout songs: "Stay The Course", "Back To Front (Circular Logic)", "Tedium", "Redeemed", "Run For Your Life", "Circular Logic (Front To Back)"

Skip 'em songs:  "Give Me Back The Nights"

Summary: 6/10

Bonus Link: DJ Shadow giving a track-by-track summary for Billboard Magazine

Bonus Reviews: NPR, Spin, Pitchfork, Metacritic

* = An unkind reading of some of the song titles ("Stay The Course", "Tedium", "Going Nowhere", "I've Been Trying") suggests that at some level he knows he's recycling material.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Waxing Poetics - "Blue-Eyed Soul" (forgotten song)

Danette and I went to the Waxing Poetics reunion show on December 30, 2012 @ The Norva.  They put on a really good show in front of a large crowd, and at nearly 2.5 hours long they must have played every song from their three studio LPs.

If you don't know, the Waxing Poetics were a Norfolk-based band active from 1983-1991.  Periodically they do reunion shows (here's an article about their 2003 reunion show), but for the most part they are dormant.  They had a few hits on the radio and were poised to make it big, but for some reason it never happened. The Virginian Pilot has a nice article explaining the history & significance of the band, and their relation to R.E.M. & Carol Taylor.
I never saw them live back in the day, so I was excited to finally see them, albeit ~25 years late.  Our first thought at looking at the band -- and the crowd that came to see the band -- was "who are these old people?!" It's a good thing we're not that old...

Their biggest LP was 1988's "Manakin Moon", and that LP featured their biggest single was "Baby Jane".  My personal favorite song was "Blue-Eyed Soul" (also from the same LP), which they did a crunching version of near the end of their first set.  And for a brief period, it was 1988.

Blue-Eyed Soul: live 1990, studio