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Articles by

<Mike Dougherty>

03/12/08 12:00am

It’s usually not wise to take Stephen Malkmus’s lyrics to heart, but the first lines on Real Emotional Trash read, “Of all my stoned digressions, some have mutated into the truth.” It’s an uncharacteristically self-conscious — not to mention lucid — thought from someone famous for the very non sequiturs he’s referring to, but it ends right there. A few seconds later, in between lame metal riffs, he’s singing about a dragonfly that wants a piece of pie, and all hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of a Stephen Malkmus solo record are dashed.

Since the dissolution of 90s rock paragon Pavement, Malkmus has released four solo records, all of varying quality, all pointlessly divisive among music nerds who still hold out hope that someday, some solo career will trump the band that spawned it. Trash is the second album recorded with backing band the Jicks, and the first since Janet Weiss (of the also-pretty-important Sleater-Kinney) has taken on drum duties. Her presence couldn’t be felt less, and perhaps that says something about all these beloved mainstays. Whether noodling in the background or writing the songs, these guys all know what they’re doing, and they’re content to just keep doing it, regardless of the impending threat of monotony.

In Malkmus’s case, he wanes in importance the more he leans on classic rock and stoner metal riffs. His songs have simultaneously gotten longer, sprawling with Doors-y jams, and cleaner, confining the playful sloppiness of his old band, and his previous solo albums, into more clearly demarcated sloppy sections. It’s especially frustrating when there are still gratifying moments of clarity, like that opening line, that almost stand to make up for the “stoned digressions” that box them in. Here, the best one is ‘Gardenia,’ a perfect three-minute pop song that he never would have written for Pavement (though maybe for Belle & Sebastian). That it’s wedged between two six-and-a-half-minute guitar jams makes it that much more of a standout, but it sadly can’t redeem a mediocre record, not to mention a slowly diminishing career

03/12/08 12:00am

Jokes about the proliferation of Canadian indie-rock bands had gotten old by the time Ladyhawk dropped their first record in 2006, but two years later, it still hasn’t gotten any less impressive how consistent the bands trickling down from up north tend to sound. That first release pegged Ladyhawk as a sort of boozier Wolf Parade, embracing the same dark, heavy guitar work, but stretching it out to include sloppy, Neil Young-style solos. As its title might imply, Shots is just as boozy as its predecessor, another moody guitar album recorded in an audibly spacious old house. It’s a familiar sound, but it’s clearly meant to be, especially as the references bleed through: ‘Night You’re Beautiful’ lifts its backing vocals from ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, ‘Fear’ quotes the Beatles, and ‘Corpse Paint’ calls to mind the black-and-white makeup worn by black metal bands. The rest draws from a balanced combination of early-90s alternative and Southern rock — the same ground they trod the first time around, but the kind that hasn’t worn out yet.

02/27/08 12:00am

Kanye West has drawn so much attention lately that it’s almost easy to forget he actually released a record, Graduation, in September of last year. There was the Grammy ceremony — awards shows having always been one of the prime spotting grounds for his sizeable real-life ego — wherein he performed a tribute to his recently deceased mother with “MAMA” shaved ominously into the back of his head. There’s word of an all-star summer tour with Lupe Fiasco, Rihanna and N.E.R.D., boasting a Star Wars-inspired poster that looks like one of the most expensive pieces of paper ever designed. And then there’s the new video for Graduation’s fourth and arguably best single, ‘Flashing Lights’. Like lots of rap videos, it’s visceral, shocking and a little obscene, but it manages to be so in a way completely unlike any other. 

I’ll offer a brief summary (spoilers aplenty): In unwavering slo-mo, a sports car parks on a desert road around dusk. A tall woman in a fur coat climbs out of the driver’s seat, struts toward the camera, takes off most of her clothes and lights them on fire. She walks back to the car (lots more strutting) and opens the trunk to reveal Kanye, lying face-up and gagged, so obscured by the glare from the taillight that for a second it looks as though it might not even be him. She pulls out a shovel, leans back, and drives it into his body six times, the contents of the trunk now totally blocked from view. She stands and stares for a few seconds, then it’s over.
Co-directed by Spike Jonze, the video’s immediately notable for its absurdity. There’s a moment of shock when she reveals the body in the trunk, then another when she thrusts the point of the shovel at it. It’s strikingly minimal — a lot happens, but you can still explain it in a few short sentences. It’s set in an ambiguous bleak space, features one lone pair of characters, and avoids lip synching and dancing, despite the song being Kanye’s most club-ready to date. In short, it turns a “flashy” song — and as a result, the rap video genre itself — on its head. Hip-hop videos are typically known for glamour, excess and, lately, T-Pain’s hilarious arm-cranking dance, all of which are elements Kanye’s bought into in the recent past. In ‘Flashing Lights’, the clothes, the cars, even Kanye himself are all present, but very much sidelined. Vegas is in the frame, but even it’s way off in the background.

Kanye’s wearing an expensive suit in his few seconds on screen, of course, but it presumably gets ruined when he’s bludgeoned by a shovel. It’s a little grotesque, but it’s also funny — he’s literally taking jabs at his own image. The woman doing the dirty work is more than just his cruel murderer: she, not he, is the main character, and she takes a shovel not just to his torso, but to the very idea of the “video ho” and all of the term’s reductive implications. It’s one of the unfortunate trademarks of the average rap video that women are treated as eye candy, always dressed in beachwear even when they’re indoors, always dancing in the background while the men rapping take up most of the frame. Here, our leading lady is still dressed in practically nothing, but it only ups the shock value of her death blow. If she were clad in slacks and one of Kanye’s favorite sweater/scarf combos, it probably wouldn’t seem so meaningful, or quite so subversive, and we probably wouldn’t be rooting so hard for her by the end.

Which begs the question: Why are we rooting for her in the first place? If we’re watching this video, we presumably like Kanye West, and would therefore rather he not be brutally murdered and buried somewhere in the Nevada desert. But at the video’s abrupt end, she’s obviously the favored party. It’s still unclear who the song is being directed at and how the back-story might read, but there are clues in the second verse, and it’s clear there’s an apology there. There’s definitely a shaky relationship at play, and we assume it’s gone sour because of Kanye’s well-documented cockiness, about which he occasionally reveals his guilt. “As you recall, you know I love to show off,” he says, and if we take this as a message to us, his audience, and not to some nameless girl, the song and video look more like a defeated, rather than boastful, self-reflection. He not only knows he’s got an ego — he’s always known, and he’s worked it to death — but he knows it can hurt people, too. This is his concession to us: he’s saying, “I know there’s a totally despicable side of me that you’d probably like to see less of, so here, enjoy this video of me getting beaten to death.”

Of course, it could be speculated that this is just another tactical move as Kanye meticulously sculpts his public image. His mom died in November, hence all the tributes at the Grammys and in the tabloids, and it’s clear he’s been a little more vulnerable lately than he usually puts on. Could throwing a death wish out there just be a pity play, a way to affect the underdog role again, ridiculous as that might be? After all, he started out as a producer with friends in high places but a questionable level of sheer talent. Three albums later, devout hip-hop heads still question whether he’s that good a writer.

But what the ‘Flashing Lights’ video makes clear is that Graduation, through means beyond the album itself, is the culmination of all the early-career promises Kanye made. College Dropout and Late Registration were both great, revered albums, but there was this buzz that Kanye was going to somehow make hip-hop into something bigger than it was, to get things back on course. Those two albums didn’t do it: both were sprawling, overstuffed with skits and shaky lyrics, and clearly assembled by someone unsure to what extent he wanted to buy into rap stereotypes when he was simultaneously supposed to be destined for something greater. But with Graduation, the scattered visual distractions have rightfully taken the attention off his writing and his rapping. The ‘Flashing Lights’ video is the ultimate punchline, just the best in a long line of clever moves around a record that have all focused not on rapping but on perfectly orchestrated shock value, albeit a particular type of shock value achieved not actually through a violent murder scene — violence hasn’t been shocking in decades, really, and especially not in hip-hop — but through what the scene represents: the knowledge that humility is a virtue, or that women should be empowered, or that there’s no shame in being remorseful. Or, in short, common decency.

One of the earliest bits of Graduation that leaked was the cover: a neon cartoon by the Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami. (Murakami also animated a video for ‘Good Morning’ that hasn’t been officially released, though it’s touring with his exhibition, which is coming to the Brooklyn Museum in April.) The cover itself is ludicrous, but the partnership is brilliant. Hip-hop and pop art have basically the same core aesthetic principle — to use existing popular culture as material for reflection on, well, existing popular culture. The off-kilter but adept choice of much of Graduation’s source material, and now the ‘Flashing Lights’ video, are all further means to this ultimate self-reflection. Graduation has become, in the months since its release, much more than just a rap album. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take a shovel to that idea too.

01/30/08 12:00am

Hot Chip’s biggest asset is, and pretty much always has been, the ability to use dance music as a platform for more experimental pursuits. Like most other European dance groups favored by the American hipster set, they tend to fall into cycles of singles and remixes; often they’ll do as many DJ sets in a city as they will actual shows. It works to their benefit in that they find their crowd with zero effort, but then take their albums wherever they want once a strong single takes hold. Most other indie-darling dance groups struggle with the album format, which is admittedly tricky when every song hovers around the same tempo and features a similar range of sounds. How often does one hear a non-’D.A.N.C.E.’ Justice track, or a Knife song other than ‘Heartbeats’? It has a lot do with how people access these records — almost always in social situations, where one wants to hear the most familiar song possible, or where a DJ is choosing it anyway — but it’s all the more notable when the act in question makes a conscious effort to do more with their music than coax people to the floor.

In Hot Chip’s case it’s a freedom with sounds and a simple, oddly affecting songwriting style. They can be playful without always being dancey; they can occasionally be dancey without being playful. ‘Shake a Fist’ is almost too obvious a first single: lots of buildup and release, lots of cheap, laser-noise sound effects. But the record covers different moods, too — there’s the slow, patient title track played mostly as a straight piano ballad. Then there’s ‘We’re Looking For a Lot of Love’, a dark, whooshing song that’s more night driving music than dance. Tracks like these serve as a reminder that Hot Chip came of age in London to see all different kinds of electronic music take hold — trip-hop, Beta Band-type sound collage stuff, lo-fi garage rap, etc. — enough styles that combine to make something far more substantial than your average indie dance single.

01/16/08 12:00am

Hey Willpower, the duo of techno hobbyist Tomo Yasuda and Imperial Teen’s Will Schwartz, have taken great strides to let their audience know that they play straight radio-friendly pop, and that they do so unironically and unapologetically. It’s an admirable manifesto, meant to prove that a skinny white dude who’s been in a mildly successful indie rock band for the past decade can genuinely love pop and R&B as much as a teenage girl who buys Hot 97 playlists on iTunes. But it also makes for a great reminder of how pointless that whole rockism vs. popism debate among music nerds a couple years ago was: nowadays, one would be hard-pressed to find a self-respecting music fan who doesn’t give at least some credence to mainstream dance pop.

PDA, Hey Willpower’s first full-length, feels a bit like one of those aforementioned music nerds going overboard to prove his mainstream-friendly listening habits. The sheer fact that this album is supposed to prove a point negates it. Plus, it’s hard to pinpoint how entire songs about underwear indicate that we’re dealing with people who take dance music seriously. The closest Top 40-type figure they resemble is Ludacris — someone who embraces the ridiculousness of the culture he’s a part of and exploits it to a (usually) funny effect. Hey Willpower might be attempting the same thing, but existing outside that cult of fame leaves their songs sounding like sad, empty imitations.

The duo seems to overlook the fact that real Top 40 pop takes some kind of bravado to succeed, usually manifested in extravagant R&B vocals, rapping or expensive production. Not to say that people who sing in this style have to maintain tabloid personalities to do so, but a little swagger goes a long way when it comes to making a record strictly intended to make people dance. The only song that really holds up is ‘Hundredaire’, which apes a different breed of radio hit: the Cure’s far subtler ‘Close to Me’. For once, here’s a group that would actually be better off rehashing ‘80s styles like their indie pop peers — it beats pretending to emulate something greater.             

01/02/08 12:00am

Being the pop purist he most definitely is, Stephin Merritt often leaves little to be said about his songs. Each one is almost exactly three minutes long, and any would sound equally comfortable on an oldies station or an indie-rock record. He’s an undisputed master of the form, and practically has been since the beginning of his career, leaving critics more time to, say, pick apart the “concept” of each of his albums, or speculate about whether or not the dude’s a racist (let’s assume, for the time being, that a guy who apes girl-group stuff so hard is not). The “concept album” tag is especially problematic: it’s a weighty term, one that, historically at least, seems better suited to big, grand rock records and less to plaintive collections of pop songs. True, 69 Love Songs is a set of 69 songs about love, and every song title on i starts with an “I.” But neither record, despite its “concept,” sounds the least bit cohesive. Each album’s common thread is more like a loose theme, a set of parameters for Merritt to write within, suggesting that without arbitrary rules he’d explode with too many perfect songs at once.

Distortion’s theme functions the same way: yes, there’s lots of it; no, the songs don’t really tie together any other way. And, in fact, the distortion itself is mostly overshadowed by cheap reverb, giving everything a soupy haze that almost resembles the lo-fi sound of older Magnetic Fields records like The Wayward Bus and parts of Holiday. In many ways, it’s as far from it as they could get — the prior album having established not just the letter rule but also a strict “NO SYNTHS” policy, which resulted in lots of clean, staccato “plinks.” The synths are back in full swing here, and they’re as warmly distorted as everything else. But, as always, the vague theme is just a vehicle for Merritt’s songs, the best here being ‘California Girls’ (not a Beach Boys cover, but not without its Brian Wilson moments) and a melancholy duet called ‘Please Stop Dancing.’ In the end, the most obvious distortion is the title itself.

10/24/07 12:00am

It’s safe to go ahead and guess that even if there weren’t promises of name-your-price downloads and super-deluxe formats, any new Radiohead album would still be an excuse for hundreds of overwrought, state-of-the-industry type pieces coming from all angles. They’re a band that garners the same kind of self-reflective reaction no matter what they do, simply by being one of a few prematurely canonized groups still putting out records on a semi-regular basis. This time around, they just happened to make everyone’s jobs a little easier with a built-in abstract marketing plan, which can be summed up as follows: ten days notice on the release date (pretty brilliant), no set price for a download (awfully generous), an optional overpriced box set (whatever) and a physical CD hitting stores sometime next year (weak, but the million-plus people who already downloaded the thing probably couldn’t care less).

To some, the meticulous control over how listeners access In Rainbows smacks of Radiohead’s notorious pretentiousness; to others, it’s a revolutionary business model. Either way, the stunt’s not much of a shock coming from Radiohead — any less-successful band could never consider it. The long-term effects probably won’t amount to much, which makes it easier to focus on the small matter that In Rainbows is actually a pretty great album.

It doesn’t aim for weirdness and, at least for the typically lofty Radiohead, it’s not too dense. The album — much like the marketing plan — is an admission that this band can afford, both literally and figuratively, to do as they please. Thanks to the transformative arc of The Bends, OK Computer and Kid A, they’ve already been dubbed “classic,” “essential,” and “the biggest band in the world”; no new material’s going to sway those designations in either direction. In Rainbows is like their Who’s Next or their Physical Graffiti: it’s a late-career record that will never be considered as “influential” as their big three, but it’s a lot easier to swallow as a result.

The last time it seemed as though Radiohead might have been functioning as a real live rock band was 2003’s Hail to the Thief, supposedly released after a 14-day recording session. The result was a guitar-heavy experiment that most were quick to call a “return to form,” but it was too scattered to function as any such thing. Instead, it felt like a quick work-up of some Thom Yorke demo tapes. In Rainbows, on the other hand, sees the band playing as a band. There’s proof in portions of ‘Nude’ being collaboratively written in the 1998 documentary Meeting People is Easy, but there’s also the knowledge from OK Computer and Kid A that these guys can stretch out for months in a studio and actually sound like they’ve utilized the time and space. Again, it’s not a luxury most bands can afford, but at least this one’s making good on the promise.

There are still shades of weird, arty Radiohead about the album, mostly in the form of Yorke’s slurry, incomprehensible vocals. His 2006 solo album made clear he was still into heavy electronics and the more discomfiting aspects of his own voice, but with the band behind him, he feels a little displaced. The other four spend most of the songs in a steady lockstep, vaguely rocking out on ‘Bodysnatchers’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling into Place,’ playing up jazzier rhythms on ‘15 Step’ and ‘Weird Fishes,’ and meandering through dark, spacey templates on ‘Nude’ and ‘Videotape.’ Yorke falls in and out of sync with them, often getting lost in his high, lonely register. But he’s always been the figure that aimed to keep the weirdness flowing — In Rainbows is no exception.

In the end, it’s a well-balanced record, almost to the extent that it plays into the download-only format. For the first time since maybe The Bends, Radiohead’s put out a completely non-cohesive album, which makes sense for one that, at least until December, exists only as a folder of mp3s. There’s not much logic to the sequencing other than the frontloading of the two best songs, and the lyrics are too thoroughly mumbled to draw any sort of connections. Plus, any of these tracks could be shuffled into the Radiohead catalog and work alongside bits from throughout the band’s career. It probably wasn’t a deliberate move, but it’s convenient anyway — these ten songs work nicely as part of the sprawling iTunes libraries most Radiohead fans probably cultivate. Quibbles over formats, labels and business aside, the album just makes sense, both as a piece of pop music coming out at a strange time for pop music, and as yet another stunt from a consistently iconoclastic band. Will it save the music industry? Probably not. But it’ll set a better example than The Next Great American Band.

09/26/07 12:00am

When José González’s sleepy cover of a super-hip dance track by fellow Swedes the Knife got placed in an artfully directed ad for a Sony TV, it suddenly became apparent that an easily YouTube-able commercial has equal — if not greater — weight than an actual music video. And while González was by no means the first singer-songwriter to get a boost from a commercial (coincidentally, number-one influence Nick Drake and a certain convertible come to mind), his breakout stemming almost entirely from an online video advertising flat-screen TVs seemed to tie his name to technology from the get-go.

In reality, his music could hardly be more organic: short, mellow, guitar-and-voice songs with minimal overdubs, sounding as though they could have been recorded in a single half-hour session. His new record, In Our Nature, is virtually identical to his first, though without any colorful eye candy to accompany it there’s a little more room to hear what’s there. González’s albums are best suited to passive listening, and while that might sound like an insult, it’s not. His voice and his lyrics tend to sit calmly in the background, while his guitar style is mildly hypnotic: drawing equally from old English folkies like Drake and early bossa nova guitarists like Baden Powell, he leans heavily on pedal tones, giving all his rhythms a pulsating quality.

The only disadvantage to this style is that it makes everything he plays, even his covers, sound pretty much the same. Yet even that’s a hard complaint to register against a guy whose entire recorded output totals a mere hour. Instead, it just speaks to how well González functions as a very particular sort of singer: one who’s conscious of the subtleties of how a song is played, and how those seemingly miniscule details of plucking patterns or quiet singing can enormously affect an overall mood. It’s something tons of instrumental musicians, yet fewer straight-up singer-songwriters, are attuned to, and maybe that’s why González drew so many fans the first time around. Then again, maybe it was just all those bouncing balls.

09/26/07 12:00am

“Ex-Q and Not U” is more than just a really awkward phrase with too many letter sounds; it’s also a terrible starting point for Georgie James’s Places. Though this is the first relatively high-profile release to follow Q and Not U’s 2005 breakup, it bears almost no resemblance to anything the DC trio ever did. Georgie James is co-fronted by Laura Burhenn and John Davis — Davis being the former band’s drummer — and, if anything, they mostly come off sounding like the New Pornographers. Their songs are clean, poppy and lean way too heavily on co-ed vocal harmonies, which is to say they’re mostly pretty bland. There is one riff, on ‘Need Your Needs’, that sounds like it could have been used on a dance-rock track from Q and Not U’s last album, but even that’s ruined by a wimpy, banal chorus. Of course, it’s never fair to judge a band solely on one member’s previous pursuits, but really, no set of expectations could make Places sound like anything more than an hour of average indie-pop.

08/29/07 12:00am

It’s cool that Imperial Teen is still making records that sound like 1996, especially since they had such a quintessential mid-90s career tack. Spun off from a prominent but underrated band (in this case, Faith No More), they launched with a couple critical favorites on a major label imprint, got some big tour dates and a spot in a teen movie, then drifted over to Merge Records after their Universal deal puttered out. It’s funny, too, because some of the bands still around that did the exact same thing — say, Spoon and the Dandy Warhols — share a similar set of early rock-and-roll influences and a similar taste for fairly minimalist guitar-and-keyboard pop. Imperial Teen’s never held the stature of those bands, though, which is odd considering how many acts that followed them held up the peppy, co-ed indie pop standard they helped establish. That their new record is as good as any they’ve ever put out is maybe their reward — they’re probably in better shape having a record out on Merge in 2007 than having one on Universal.