29 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #28

Shit and Shine, Ladybird (Latitudes, 2005)

Ladybird is rock boiled down to an unbelievably primitive, guitarless essence: as the liners note, "4 drummers, 2 bassists, 1 toy keyboard = 1 riff, 41 minutes = evil fun." This is an album consisting of one 41-minute song, conveniently titled "Ladybird," consisting of the above instrumentation plus Craig Clouse's screamed vocals kept mostly just under the music, reverbed howls and grunts off in the background. The "toy keyboard" they refer to sounds nothing like a Casio you'd use to make cheesy sounds in the '80's and precious, godawful indie rock in the '00's. It keeps modulating between two notes and sounds more like unbelievably well controlled guitar feedback than anything else. (It's also probably this toy keyboard that keeps adding the almost random, tuneless blasts of white noise that float from speaker to speaker.) The power of the album lies in the insanely hypnotic and punishing repetition: the brutally distorted basses cycle through two heavy, vicious, grinding notes, continually gnashing at you, while the 4 sets of drums - which seem to consist of nothing but bass drums and snare drums, maybe floor toms and snare drums - pound out the simplest, heaviest rhythm you can imagine. Maureen Tucker would be proud. Individual musical elements drop out of the piece after about 15 minutes, to the listener's relief, but you know that the keyboard and basses will build up right into the same beyond-relentless riff again, and soon enough it does. While listening, the listener picks up on one aspect of the structure of the piece: every so often, one of the drummers does a snare roll, which signals the bassists and keyboardist to throw in their single variation on the two-note riff, and then it's back to the one riff. Again. And again. And again. It becomes cruel as it continues - you feel like they could've made their point somewhere around the 24th minute with no problems, but that would be detrimental to the goal of shameless sonic overkill they're pursuing. It's merciless enough to make the Butthole Surfers look like toddlers. Obviously, Ladybird has limited usage - it's not exactly something you can throw on in the background, and you can't even listen to it that often in the foreground. (Oddly enough, however, the band's later album Girls Against Shit is far less accessible than this album is, even though it's divided up into 19 songs.) But if you want an album stuck between pure noise destruction and psychedelic jam nirvana that will absolutely beat you into fucking submission and maybe leave you with a splitting headache afterwards, Ladybird is the finest choice you could have. This album/song is "Sister Ray" on Godzilla-powered steroids: it will turn your brain into raspberry jello and your shit into tap water.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #27

The Cure, Seventeen Seconds (Fiction Records, 1980)

Seventeen Seconds is sort of an odd duck in The Cure's discography; it's not quite full-on gothic mope-and-strum like even the next album would be, but it's not even close to the wiry, jumpy, and very energetic Three Imaginary Boys stylistically. That album sounded positively caffeinated and almost happy at times, characterized by a lot of guitar lines with a trebly, scratchy, thin sound that resembled the guitar tones on early Fall records. This album is already a stark contrast. It sounds like The Cure started listening to Unknown Pleasures something fierce. (They did play a show with Joy Division at least once, which lends maybe a tiny bit of credence to my almost-theory.) These kids now sound like they couldn't smile even if they wanted to. The overwhelming emotional tone of the album is stark, distant, downbeat, mechanical and depressed. In a word, the album sounds cold. I don't mean to imply it's a straight copy of Unknown Pleasures, though: just that there was some obvious influence taken, and a clear reorientation of artistic direction.

For one thing, the drumming on Seventeen Seconds is far more robotic than anything Stephen Morris did with Joy Division. Lol Tolhurst plays a total of maybe three drum fills on the entire album, and his drumming was processed throughout to sound unlike standard drums would. This drum sound has led people to regularly mistake his playing for that of a drum machine, hilariously enough. (There is a fascinating article online about how they came up with the drum sound on the album - it's from the magazine Sound on Sound and involves miking the drums with contact mics, which is a miking method I've never heard of anyone else using on drums.) Another thing is that Robert Smith's guitar playing is completely different from the first album - it's always clean, frigid, jerky, tense, rhythmic... and somehow sounds utterly hopeless. There's no guitar distortion on the album at all, and it's hard to say what makes the guitar sound so effective. Some people have said it sounds weak and monotonous, and while the latter charge rings true, the former charge can go jump in a lake. The guitar playing sounds something like David Byrne would've if he'd had incurable depression instead of extreme anxiety and not an ounce of would-be funk in his body. And it works. The best song on the album is the single, "A Forest," but "In Your House," "At Night," "Play For Today," "Secrets" and "Seventeen Seconds" are all nearly as good. It's a very even, atmospheric album, with Smith's vocals mixed pleasingly low along with Matthieu Hartley's ethereal synthesizer, and Simon Gallup's repetitive, moody basslines almost as important to the songs melodically as Smith's guitar. Not many Cure fans share this opinion, but Seventeen Seconds is certainly one of my very favorite Cure albums. It's extremely consistent and atmospheric, and the sound is so generally lined up to my own tastes that it'd be hard for me to dislike it. There are some albums you just can't help really, really liking, and for me, this is one of them.

(Finally, be sure to try and find the video for "A Forest" that the band released - it's low-budget as hell, hilariously minimalist, and Robert Smith looks so much like a bored Ben Affleck that it's positively shocking.)

I'm stuck working a Saturday shift and I'm organizing my bookmarks.

I have no idea who Wye Oak is but I like their cover of Danzig's "Mother". Enjoy.

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #26

The Isley Brothers, It's Our Thing (T-Neck, 1969)

The Isleys are one of those acts who have lasted so long that no one can remember when they started and how exactly they lasted so long. Well, the Isleys started in the '50's as a gospel quartet, and they managed to last so long because Ronald Isley is a brilliant (if often too unctuous for his own good on the ballads) soul singer, because Ernie Isley's terrific Hendrix-inspired guitar sound became a wondrous sonic signature for them, and because, to put it uncharitably, they followed trends - from gospel, to soul, to funk, to disco, to electro-dance, to modern R&B. And man, were they good at it. I mean that last sentiment as a compliment, however. The Isleys might have been putting out product at the end of the day, but it was incredibly solid, extremely influential (on James Brown and Jimi Hendrix certainly), consistent, enjoyable, and even wonderful product at its' finest. However, they never innovated too much, except for a few occasions. It's Our Thing, in contrast to much of their discography, shows the Isleys really innovating. Freed from a dictatorial Motown contract that forbid them to write their own material and essentially relegated them to minor artists within the label's pecking order, the Isleys started up their label T-Neck and started writing and recording their own material again. It must have been a huge relief, because they immediately put out a 26-minute LP filled with pleading ballads in the great love man tradition (that Ronald Isley didn't invent, but certainly helped to define), energetic soul belters, and most importantly: brilliant hard funk.

Of the ballads here, "Save Me" features great horn arrangements, a fantastically intricate and almost unnoticed guitar part, and Ronnie wooing the ladies, reveling in his vocal prowess (he sounds utterly delighted with himself every time he hits a high note) and slinging the bullshit as only he can. "Feel Like The World" is a beautifully downtempo number with more fantastic Ronnie Isley showmanship. On these ballads, he's not going to move your soul, but he is going to entertain the hell out of you. The energetic soul belters include "Somebody Been Messin'," where Ronnie exclaims "Aw, let me rap to you this morning!" in the first twenty seconds and pretty much guarantees it as a classic from that point on. (The awesome soul riffs certainly help on that front too.) "I Must Be Losing My Touch" has fantastically driving rhythm and incredible backing vocals that assure Ronnie that he is, indeed, losing his touch. "Don't Give It Away" has great, intricate drum parts, nagging and memorable guitar riffs (including a good solo too), and more of that unimpeachable Isley singing. There's just so much joy in this music! I really have to think that this kind of music is functionally impossible to dislike.

But the best stuff here is the hard funk. Funk was really just starting to gain prominence when the Isleys released this album in February 1969; the Isleys' efforts in the genre really helped to define it. "Give The Women What They Want," "He's Got Your Love" and "I Know Who You Been Socking It To" all have astonishingly strong riffs, singing from Ronnie that's so delighted and so brilliantly performative that it hugely elevates the material, and rhythms that you literally cannot stop yourself from dancing to. But the best song, which all three of those funk songs were probably inspired by, is the almost-title track, "It's Your Thing." (Well, what else was I going to pick?) "It's Your Thing" is one of those songs that was almost certainly regarded as an instant classic when it first came out, and is still a stone classic today. The song is a cornerstone of funk music. It's so good that it actually deserves to be called sublime. It's a stroke of near-total genius and almost certainly the Isleys' finest moment. It's Our Thing is a fantastic snapshot of a very good group at an artistic peak that helped change music.
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