05/26/10 4:10am

Tracey Thorn
Love and Its Opposite

(Merge Records)

As their 1992 acoustic album made abundantly clear, the heart of Everything But The Girl was that of a folk band, but amplified. That wasn’t always obvious, though; throughout the ’90s they were filed under some inappropriate amalgam of electronic pop and trip hop, and even “Missing,” their career-making calling card international hit, is best known not with its original acoustic guitars, but via producer
Todd Terry’s booty-bass club remix (and then by proxy through Chris Kattan’s lascivious gyrations as Mango on Saturday Night Live, but
that’s another matter entirely).

So a singer-songwriter album from leading lady Tracey Thorn is an intriguing prospect, especially in the wake of her stellar 2007 solo rebirth, Out Of The Woods, a seductive Supermarket Sweep binge of vocal layers and keyboard lines in the Imogen Heap template. Love And Its Opposite is much sparser; not folk per se, just closer to it than fans of either her last band or her last album could have expected.

But it’s been decades since Everything But The Girl decided to start
trading in songs for beats, so rather than talking here about how
Thorn is now “wearing a different hat,” I’d like to propose a sister
metaphor which instead substitutes pants, the reason being that if you
hang up your pants for twenty years, you may find when you finally
pull them back down that they no longer fit properly. This is the
situation in which Thorn finds herself now.

In other words, even if they’re not bad songs, this barebones thing is
really just a needless waste of everybody’s time considering that she
could instead be doing the sculpting she already excels with. But then
there’s “Kentish Town,” a haunting Gothic guided tour through somebody
else’s memory lane filled with fog and regrets, breathtaking and
bone-chilling and yet perhaps the skimpiest of the bunch, enough to
make me defer final appraisals until we’ve seen the next round.
In the meantime, somebody please remix these.

02/17/10 4:00am

Massive Attack

Let’s start by going out on a limb here and pointing out the amusing parallels between the formula behind Massive Attack’s pioneering trip-hop and some of the briefly more marketable 90s electronic pop clowns like C+C Music Factory and the Real McCoy—specifically, the Jekyll-and-Hyde combination of Robert Del Naja’s mumbled back-alley baritone pseudo-raps and the somewhat more melodic leads, all with keyboard-laden backdrops hinting at fairly inept visions of the future. Remember that all of the above, roughly speaking, were contemporaries of movies like Hackers and The Net, artifacts from an awkward digital puberty where you’d get only one button on a mouse, if you even knew what one was in the first place.

Flashing forward 15 or so years, insofar as Heligoland still tries to be a Massive Attack record, the results are remarkable: “Rush Minute” and “Atlas Air” can stand alongside anything else this band has ever released. But those are also the only two fronted by Del Naja, and when he gives the keys to the van to guest lead vocalists like Tunde Adebimpe and Damon Albarn, it all falls apart. Neither is prepared to carry his band’s legacy for even four minutes—the foreboding songs are usually made even more upsetting by all the confusing amorphous edges, for one thing, but these guys just enunciate too damn clearly.

This is not a new approach, of course—the hired guns have previously given us killer songs like “A Prayer For England” and the immortal “Teardrop,” and even though Heligoland hits more than it misses, the upsetting part is that it feels for the first time like Massive Attack is standing on the edge of a precipice, ready to tie their lines to performances by outside artists and recklessly hurl themselves over into a simple rubber-stamping role. For all that morose soothsaying about the bleak Blade Runner existence bearing down on us, and all the effort they expended laying a foundation from which to address it, it seems that their own future didn’t quite shape up as expected. Maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s certainly one of those things that make you go hmmm.

02/03/10 4:30am

My Brightest Diamond
Shark Remixes
(Asthmatic Kitty)

Let’s give the onetime Sufjan backup singer Shara Worden a freebie on the “Did we really need this?” question in reference to the sprawling new remix collection she’s built to accompany A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, and instead jump directly to how it actually fares. While the 2007 remix album Tear It Down (13 tracks) built from her debut Bring Me The Workhorse (11 tracks) was farmed out one song at a time, her sophomore album (11 tracks) turns into Shark Remixes (22 tracks), a set of four EPs, each driven by a different remix artist.

The big winner is bleeding-edge composer Son Lux, who handily flips the second installment upside down largely by placing digital drums and chirps alongside perversely overeager pseudoclassical instrumentation, vaguely in the template of Björk’s remarkable unhinged-camp Sinatra-shrieker “It’s Oh So Quiet.” (He reportedly didn’t actually listen to the full songs he was remixing until he had finished his new versions, which seems to have worked out surprisingly well.) Bringing up the rear is Roberto Carlos Lange of Brooklyn tropic-rockers Helado Negro, who peaks with a glistening take on “If I Were A Queen” (itself nonetheless outdone in solitary snowstorm misery by entries from Alfred Brown and DM Stith), and somehow manages to bungle his “Manzanas” even though its source material, “Apples,” was easily the most jigsaw-friendly piece on the original record.

But the songs were all pretty cooperative in that regard, which is probably why in the end this is worth sifting through, if not quite listening to wholesale. Thirty-three shark’s teeth down, 967 to go; just, come on, show a little restraint, guys—the solution isn’t always getting a bigger boat. In any case, the only person I want driving this one is Shara. Everyone else please get the hell out the way.

01/06/10 7:30am

Final Fantasy

(Domino Records)

Slated to be Owen Pallett’s final record under the Final Fantasy moniker he first used to break through a few years back, Heartland reveals the Toronto composer as a bit of a musical claustrophobe, which of course we should probably have already concluded, since he’s a violinist who now makes electronic records—a touch twee, even, but without the ukulele or whatever it is those guys are into these days.

But that’s the very real success of Heartland—it’s neither a spacey textural exploration nor a hummable pop record, but rather both. Just when you’re lost in an intricate waterfall of arpeggios or perhaps bopping your head involuntarily as a killer new drum pattern enters, Pallett will hit with you with a clever lyric or a memorable hook or something else that just shouldn’t be there, not according to the standard blueprints anyway.

Foremost among these would be the refrain from sort-of title track “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!”—actually less amusing in execution than the punctuation might make it seem on paper, instead coming across as a tender Sufjan project gone awry, perhaps lamenting the various cruelties of 50 women instead of celebrating their home states—and perhaps also the sophisticated rhythmic programming on “The Great Elsewhere,” which disguises a lovely soaring melodic curve, but only very poorly, like those sunglasses with the built-in mustaches. There are plenty of strings too, of course, lending a distinguished chamber-pop air to the whole affair which, quite frankly, isn’t needed, because a fine chorus is already pretty damn respectable.

12/23/09 11:00am

If the titular “Kid A,” supposedly the theoretical first product-to-be
of human cloning efforts, had been actually been born back when
Radiohead’s now-legendary fourth album was released, he’d be just shy
of ten years old by now. At this point his namesake is almost a moral
imperative for “albums of the decade,” so here I am, and man, ain’t
that some shit: probably one of the most polarizing records to come
out in our lifetimes, “Kid A” might to this day still define the notion
of a band shredding expectations, creating Great Art with
admirably little regard for their audience and eventually emerging
triumphant at the other end.

Lord, how I hated it at first. I quite adored Radiohead, or at least
I had up through “OK Computer,” but the heights (er, depths?)
of alt-rock obsession in the teenage guitarist I once was would only
allow the slightest deviation from MTV Buzz Bin tunnel vision, and
watching the band that gave “Creep” to the world (or, directly to me,
it seemed sometimes, the still more depressing “Prove Yourself”) put
out an album where the closest they got to a genuine guitar riff was in
“Optimistic” felt like low-grade treason.

I still remember the day that all changed for me: the following year,
shortly after September 11th, with the airy click of the “Idioteque”
drums as the background behind some logo-filler spot on MTV. All of a
sudden, it was as if the dystopian world they’d been mumbling about
since the days of “Karma Police” and even “Fake Plastic Trees” was
actually coming true. The future, in other words, was no longer a
vague abstraction to be feared and somehow infinitely mentally
postponed–it was something that actually happens when you’re not
paying attention, and you’d better fucking learn to deal with it. From
then on, it was probably OK to replace guitars with synthesizers.

It was all downhill from there. For a long time it felt like nobody
else had come close to publishing a more exciting opening figure than
the descending keyboard line in “Everything In Its Right Place,”
probably still the album’s definitive gut-punch and the hook which was
so savagely plunged through my lip from the first moment I revisited
the album with fresh ears and enough time elapsed for my silly hurt
feelings to have scabbed over, but I realize now that it probably has
just as much to do with the excitement of knowing what is to follow.

Most immediately at least, that would be the title track, likewise at
first a hard-knock of blippy percussion and abstract vocal warps (in
comparison, the second song on the preceding album was the concrete,
multi-movement — and, yes, guitar-driven — lead single “Paranoid
Android”) which would eventually morph into what might just be the
most successful use of nursery bells in rock, if you could even call
it that anymore. But you couldn’t, really; Radiohead, having long
cultivated and complained about and composed around these nebulous
fears about our souls being liposuctioned out from beneath us — “Heat
the pins and stab them in/You have turned me into this/Just wish that
it was bullet proof,” and so on — had finally decided that since
nobody was quite getting the message, they needed instead to embody
it, themselves becoming something too challenging to
be ignored, too terrifying not to at least be remembered, whether by
way of a temple or a crater.