"Money Will Ruin Everything"
I sometimes catch myself slipping into label worship, a dangerous and infrequent indulgence, but one that has yet to free my covetous eye from anything bearing the Rune Grammofon stamp. The Norwegian label celebrated its 30th release last year with this double-CD/book, acting not so much as a retrospective, but more as an attempted rounding-out of the label's focus, a condensed look at what the past has produced, and what the future holds. Reading through Money Will Ruin Everything, I am immediately reminded of the many labels where such a release would be long overdue. Founder Rune Kristoffersen cites Tzadik, 4AD, Factory, ECM, and Blue Note as inspirations, and there can be no denying that Grammofon's consistency of presentation, commitment to quality, and its effected grouping of a variety of artists, under one vaguely-defined ethos, find much in common with those older, iconoclastic imprints. The risk in releasing something like Money, especially so early in a label's life, is an over-confidence, a presumptuousness surrounding one's accomplishments thus far, and the possibility of these presumptions, proven or not, having a negative effect on future projects. Money is quick to address these concerns in its title, a cheeky flirtation with the idea of book as a sell-out, and later inside, as the title page is preceded by the inscription: "This book is a record cover." The effort to make the book seem like merely an expanded sleeve is clear throughout; a great number of pages are devoted to Kim Hiorth°y's beautiful design work, the hallmark for Grammofon discs and the undoubted cause of many introductions to the label. The pages include detailed examinations of each Hiorth°y sleeve design, making clear the individuality of every release within the larger schema, and making Money seem much more like an artbook than an attempt to venerate the label's five-year past. The book even contains an essay devoted to the designer's contributions, and though the text brings comparisons to legends like Barney Bubbles and Peter Saville, these names do not feel far off after exposure to Hiorth°y's body of work, which perfectly suits the colorful character of the Grammofon catalog. The great variety and quality of the label's music are the real focal points of the book and refuse to be compromised by Wire editor Rob Young's introductory essay or the printed interview with Kristoffersen. The owner's diplomatic words actually conclude Money nicely, describing the release as "just a signpost in the road," a claim that is perfectly supported by the music on the two discs, all exclusive and including substantial contributions from almost every Rune artist and a number of excellent tracks from other yet-to-be-released members of the blossoming Norwegian scene (most notably music from Maja Ratkje's new Fe-mail project, new signing Susanna And The Magical Orchestra, and a brilliant track by Hiorth°y himself). A crystalline, Nordic cool can be found in just about everything on Kristoffersen's label, but all easy comparisons end there. The curating founder's tastes lie in the most shadowy and grittiest of improv (Supersilent, Scorch Trio), in the most lulling and approachable of experimental electronic (Skyphone, Alog), and everywhere in between, grazing pristine folk (Tove Nilsen), shuddering, skeletal techno (Svalastog), and the unclassifiable music of Maja Ratkje and Spunk, who seem to blur the lines between noise and childhood. Perhaps the unifying characteristic of all Rune Grammofon music is that everything, given time, feels capable of deeply personal investment. There is a very unique immediacy to these artists' music that looks inward toward the same "enchanted domain" that essayist Adrian Shaughnessy describes in Hiorth°y's art, making it impossible to describe Rune music without touching on all the spectral degrees, frequency shifts, and, as Rob Young says, the "subtle colour shading" that indicate a life lived, complex, radiant, and full of surprises. Money offers little more than this; it is a celebration of what every Rune release celebrates, and the perfect introduction to a label that has yet to stop short of its own high standards.
- Andrew Culler
Xela, "Tangled Wool"
City Centre Offices
Xela has crafted what is for me, the year's first magnificent pop album. "Softness of Senses" opens the record with an absolutely sublime strumming guitar riff that leads into some simple guitar melodies, whisps of synth and deep bass notes. It's a perfect start to an album that has quickly become one of my favorites in recent memory. Well, it's almost perfect. By the time I was halfway through the beautifully melancholy "You Are In The Stars" I started to wonder what was missing. It's an absolutely intoxicating record of superb melodies, textbook pop song structures, and just the right amount of tweaked back-end to throw the whole mix into another world, but by the time I got to track five, "Through Crimson Clouds," the experience was feeling incomplete. It was like one of the channels of the stereo mix was just missing: a huge gaping whole in the middle of one of the best pop records I've heard in a long, long time. And then it hit me. In John Xela's quest to make the perfect pop record (dedicated to Monika), he forgot to get anyone to sing on it! To be fair, there's a repeating phrase drenched in reverb on "Drawing Pictures of Girls," but that's not enough to do the rest of these arrangements justice. These songs are so tight, I can hear the words that should be there in my head every time I give it a spin, but try as I might, I can't find the vocals because there aren't any. I'm not one who's stuck on vocal-driven music; most of what I listen to is instrumental in fact. But with a record of this depththe kind of record 4AD used to put out when anyone gave a damn, the kind of record that gets jaded ex-pop music fans to put down the laptop glitch and listen to something that belongs on a mixtape of love songsthere's just got to be someone singing on it. These songs demand a voice, and not just the tonally-challenged voice I add when I'm listening in the car. John Xela, if you are reading this, go find yourself a singer. Toni Haliday isn't doing much these days, is she? Surely there's some way to reconcile this because a finer pop record isn't bound to come around this year, but this one isn't finished. - Matthew Jeanes
THE BOOKS, "THE LEMON OF PINK"
I was late discovering 2002's Thought for Food, The Books' gorgeous debut album of electro-acoustic sound collages. That album had a guileless charm, the songs seeming to form out of nowhere, spilling accidentally out of a patchwork of crisply reproduced guitars, seemingly random voice samples, field recordings and other unidentifiable sources. The laptop-treated melodies fell roughly into the same category as Four Tet's Pause album, but with an ear for synchronicity and miniature sound events that reinforced the primacy of randomness, rather than the rigidity of regular rhythms and melody. It was a refreshing album that unpredictably alternated between nostalgia, absurdity and ingenuity. The Lemon of Pink was released last year, and I was once again late in giving it a listen. With this record, The Books display the same talent for collage and melody, but I can't help but notice how calculated, and hence less enjoyable this album seems compared to the relatively unaffected Thought for Food. The ideas also seem a little thinner on this outing, and the wonderful spaciousness of the debut LP has been replaced by a cavalcade of de rigeur clicks and glitches, overwhelming many of the songs. No complaints with the first few minutes of the album's opening track, cycling as it does through a scrapbook of scratchy, recollective folk and bluegrass records, a woman phonetically intoning the nonsense title, and a hundred indeterminate snatches of sound. But after this promising couple minutes, it all segues into a relatively tepid Cat Power-esque guitar-folk ballad that is something of a letdown following its kaleidescopic introduction. "Tokyo" utilizes samples from a Japanese airport along with its vaguely Eastern guitar plucking and violin sawing, digitally spliced and looped to circumvent melody entirely. It's a bit of an obvious tactic for The Books. "There is No There" suffers from editing overload, but still manages to be quite lovely, especially the pause at the song's center for a sample describing Gandhi's theory of non-violent protest. This transforms into a rollicking banjo and guitar duet that is reminiscent of John Fahey augmented by Jim O'Rourke's talent for laptop assemblage. The rest of The Lemon of Pink is largely short song sketches and useless filler, making this already brief album even lighter in content, more like an EP than a full-length. I suppose if I had heard this album outside the context of The Books previous work, I might have thought that it was a passably pretty work of indie-folktronica. But coming as it did from a band that produced such an impressive debut, The Lemon of Pink is a bit deficient. - Jonathan Dean
Chicago Underground Trio, "Slon"
The Chicago Underground (whose members vary in number on their various releases) uses the malleable forms of jazz and electronic music to explore sounds and thoughts that could only be captured in the vistas of these boundless styles. Slon is an experiment in forms and styles, exploring the brassy expressionism of both genres to deliver a stirring display of meaning and intent through their inspired tones. The opening squalls of "Protest" are immediate, like a fist raised in the air, standing out with a direct intensity that breaks out of the din of high hats and ride cymbals that pepper the air. As the track progresses, the melody and rhythm begin to double back on themselves through overdubs, slightly out of phase but still in concert with one another, building and moving along the same path. The tension created by these overlays increases the urgency as the trio begins to sound like a throng of voices all searching for the same step. "Zagreb" begins with a low rustling of machinery in the distance, or warm air rushing through a subway tunnel, before a slinky bass line and moody cornet overtake the scene, like steam rising off a rain slicked city street. Mazurek's horn playing is intensely sultry, an alluring hook into the dusky rhythm work of bassist Noel Kupersmith and drummer Chad Taylor. The album's title track blends an ethereal, disembodied horn with a clattering of aggressive blips of electronica, transporting the initial impulses that would typically emerge from the end of a horn or drum stick deep through a processor. The percussive, pixilated energy highlights that while the medium may grant artists a wider selection of ways to express themselves, it is still up to the artist to find those words. "Slon," along with the sparse ambience of "Kite" demonstrate that the Chicago Underground is quite adept at pulling the pieces together, whatever language they are speaking. The abstractions only intensify on "Palermo," which assembles the slow attack and fast falloff of reversed cymbal hits with a drippy beat and slippery progression. The track was seemingly assembled in the style of musique concrete, by tape cutter Bill Skibbe, furthering the ensemble's post-bop aesthetic and dedication to utilizing creative methods of presenting their sound. Though the acoustic and electric portions of Slon only intersect briefly, the way in which the Chicago Underground Trio employs them makes for a distinctly impressive piece. - Michael Patrick Brady
Reynols, "Whistling Kettle Quartet"
This release should arrive with a grain of sadness for, in January, Reynols disbanded after ten years of tireless activity. The prolific Argentine group spent the majority of this time in relative obscurity, forging ahead with large ambitions and an unflinching devotion to idiosyncratic craft that inevitably left them well-situated within the pantheon of frayed roots-rockers, brash experimenters, and psychedelic casualties. Their willingness to experiment with the most eccentric of concepts always made Reynols seem extra special, even among the small crop of similarly broad-minded collectives. The group's catalog forms a sidewinding trip through torrid homemade noise rock, vintage free-form freaking, drone opuses, and a number of fantastical pieces composed for increasingly wayward instrumentation, of which Whistling Kettle is certainly one. Without the visceral edge of Blank Tapes, their surprisingly abrasive work of processed and layered tape hiss, or the baffling atmospherics of the 10,000 Chickens Symphony, sourced in what must be a gigantic, cavernous coop, Whistling Kettle brings more of a lyrical approach to Reynols' consistently adventurous arrangements. Performed on "baritone, tenor, contralto, and soprano whistling kettles," the quartet moves with a reserved, almost classical rigor that may come as a surprise to those indoctrinated by the coarse psych jams of earlier releases. Kettles drift closer to wails and howls rather than whistles, but the music supplies enough controlled tension to prevent the slip into gratuitous or brainless display. In fact, the four chrome mouthpieces do little to reveal their simple construction, each part contributing to a quivering, animate strand of sound that can only be described as otherworldly. The opener, "Andante Mogal," with its strained insistence, immediately reminded me of Jack Nance in Eraserhead, sitting patiently before the steaming vaporizer that attends his sick, inhuman child. There, like here, the kettle's whistle is something recognizable, though uncomfortable and veiled in mystery and expectation. Comparisons to Ligeti's obelisk-speak score for 2001 come easily during "Moderato uno Surido Fermo" where pitches maintain a frightening vocal range, undulating with reverent moans. The quartet escalates into its final and most impressive section, "Allegro Repuliom Lanidelo," as kettles produce grating screams and calls, sounding like the ambience from some dark, interstellar rainforest. Even at this noisy plateau, however, Whistling Kettle maintains a fragile, hushed quality which must be due to the unique timbre of the kettle. This "thinness" becomes both a callback to the medium and production of the piece, as well as one of the more interesting aspects of the music taken alone. It adds a beautiful layer of melancholy to the piece, while making the whole seem just as likely to dissolve, inconsequentially, like steam into the room. - Andrew Culler
Mice Parade, "Obrigado Saudade"
Adam Pierce has evolved Mice Parade from its humble beginnings to a full-fledged accomplished live ensemble, a feat especially impressive given his other dealings in HiM, touring with M˙m, and running Bubble Core. After the success and bombast of that experience, Pierce went back home and recorded another album mostly by himself, but he felt the need to incorporate his experiences on the road and some of his friends from other projects, culminating in the fantastic new work of Obrigado Saudade. Mice Parade of old is represented, with the Cheng making an appearance and the DIY ethics, but there's a new breath and heartbeat in these songs, where Pierce tries his hands in new realms through familiar tactics. Guitar is presented in a number of beautiful ways on the record, with minimalist drumming and percussion allowing for an unintruded splendor to awaken and flourish on several tracks. Elsewhere, Pierce has captured the fervor and proficiency of the live band with the freefall of improvisation or so it seems at least. With his fierce drumming and love of keys, the songs take on a fluid and dynamic bend, evolving as they continue, eventually resting at a comfortable stasis that never bores. Vocals from M˙m vocalist Kristin Anna Valtysdottir on two tracks add a quaint and understated beauty; innocent-sounding and utterly familiar in this setting, even though it is their first recorded pairing. Doug Scharin of HiM also adds a bit of drums on "Out of the Freedom World," sure to be a reference to the "Into the Freedom World" tracks on Mokoondi, and Chris Conti's guitar work is also not to be discounted or missed. Pierce has crafted a truly wonderful album in Obrigado, due in no small part to his travels and experiences. - Rob Devlin
Alejandra & Aeron, "Bousha Blue Blazes"
This disc from Alejandra & Aeron is an ode to grandmothers, dedicated specifically to and featuring the voice of Bousha, Aeron's grandmother. I know this: if I had recorded a record like this and given it to my grandmother, she would not have known what to make of it other than to conclude that I was a little "Off." Sometimes, even music with the best intentions falls on deaf ears because there's a cultural or generational boundary that people are unwilling to cross. Bousha Blue Blazes is likely to make a lot more sense to young, forward-listening people who are reflecting on their own relationships with grandparents than it will to grandparents themselves. What Alejandra & Aeron have created is a delicate lattice of live room recordings, faint instruments, and occassional voices that recalls the hazy sun-soaked afternoons I spent with my grandmother as a child. Bits of sound hang like dust in the air as the pair play and process and record fragments and then arrange them into structures that are held together by only the finest filaments of melody. The record plays almost like a hand-written letter composed to Bousha that I might have discovered in an estate sale some decades after Bousha, Alejandra and Aeron were all long gone. These songs are intimate, delicate, and they are at once lighter than air and soaked with the weight of memories and personal connections. I know my own grandmother wouldn't know what to make of this record, but life's erosion from time is here in every movement of spliced ambiance and in every whisp of guitar. It's a lovely testament to grandmothers everywhere, and even if they don't understand it, maybe grandmothers everywhere are listening to this record and smiling. - Matthew Jeanes
ARTHUR RUSSELL, "CALLING OUT OF CONTEXT"
Hot on the heels of Soul Jazz's The World of Arthur Russell, Audika Records releases Calling Out of Context, the first in a projected three volumes chronicling Russell's work throughout the 1980s. Where The World of compiled the best of his avant-disco sides originally released limited pressings in NYC's disco heyday, Context offers a glimpse at Russell's unreleased work, culled from his vast private archive of recorded material. The work contained herein goes even further down the idiosyncratic path in evidence on The World of's more abstract tracks such as "Schoolbell/Treehouse" and "Keeping Up." These songs make it clear that Russell was a perfectionist of sorts, meticulously adding echo, splices and overdubs to his songs until they achieved a complexity that, on the surface, can appear almost effortless. These tracks cannot be deemed "disco" in any sense. They sound more like bedroom pop masterpieces, made with a working knowledge of the patterns and clichÚs of current pop music, but with a striking originality that transcends its time and technology. "The Platform on the Ocean" showcases Russell's striking use of distortion and stereo panning, and his throaty, soulful vocals curl and echo around the clipped African percussion. His simplistic, almost childlike lyrics are elevated to high poetry with inflected repetition and Russell's distinctive production: "On the wood platform on the ocean/I looked down and saw the fish/Which way its tail was pointing and why." Even tracks that sound very much like a sincere attempt at hackneyed 80's pop balladry, such as "You and Me Both," retain a dreamy, alien distance that is utterly magical. It's as if we are seeing 80's pop filtered through Arthur Russell's dreams and hallucinations, and this altered perception allows the music to arrive untainted by its tenuous attachment to the tired clichÚs of the period. Many of these songs come from a shelved album called Corn, a strangely appropriate symbol for the sonic alchemy that unites the urban sprawl of NYC with the windswept, oceanic expanses of the Midwest, Russell's birthplace and spiritual homeland. Some track are marred by crude drum programming, but Russell's intuitive approach to the cello and keyboards more than make up for these weaknesses. For me, encountering Arthur Russell's experimental disco work three years ago was a revelation, like rummaging through an attic and stumbling upon a collection of perfectly eccentric artwork that was there all the time, waiting to be discovered. It often occurred to me that Russell's released material must be only the tip of a vast, multifaceted iceberg, and Calling Out of Context wonderfully proves my suspicions were correct. - Jonathan Dean
The Frames, "Set List"
The Frames' lack of notoriety in the US is not due to any lack of effort on their parts. With two releases on Overcoat, including their 2001 studio album For the Birds and a compilation of unreleased tracks, the band has been on these shores for several club tours, getting their name out and entertaining the masses with their polished live sound. Where other Irish bands have tried this route with limited success on a grand scale, The Frames seem to want a home-grown fanbase, teaming their small club presence with intimate albums recorded with Steve Albini and in someone's kitchen. In 2003, they recorded a live album in front of a sold-out Dublin crowd, and released it to great acclaim in their home country, where it topped the charts and critic's polls at year's end. Now, with a new deal on Epitaph's Anti imprint, Glan Hansard and the boys are making another go on American audiences on a slightly larger scale, with that very live album as the first release to give people a taste of the already rich catalog of songs the band has accrued. Three of their studio albums are represented with more than one track, and several of them become extended rock jams in front of an audience. Many have said that The Frames are a live band first, and hearing the CD I can understand why. Hansard gives his all vocally, yelping at the top of his lungs in areas, and the band blisters their way through songs, though the crowd doesn't seem to mind. In fact, it's always a good sign if you have the crowd singing along with every word, and on several tracks that's exactly what happens, most notably on "Lay Me Down," where the crowd becomes an almost impromptu choir. Hansard also proves an amusing and amiable frontman, conversing with the crowd and offering stories and anecdotes here and there. Though the album is a tour-de-force culmination of all their energies, there are small missteps, like the inclusion of "Ring of Fire" into "Lay Me Down," and the fact that the majority of the songs will be lost on a new listener, with no studio versions to compare them to as the albums are not available in the US and are rather difficult to order. That said, it's a great primer for their new studio album due later this year, and a great show of the extremes the band goes through, from somewhat down-tempo numbers to the all-out assault of "God Bless Mom." One thing's for sure: with an upcoming US tour supporting it-boy Damien Rice, I'll be one of the first in line to see if they can live up to Set List. - Rob Devlin
Mekons, "Punk Rock"
Those who slip on the Mekons new album as a novice to the band and their wiles will no doubt be a bit dumbfounded. Listening to the record, I could hear countless passages of music that I've heard elsewhere, or something so similar I would swear it was influenced by someone else if I didn't know that these songs were written almost 30 years ago and just recently recorded for the release. Punk Rock is a study of a band at their absolute finest, re-embracing music they'd written off a quarter-century ago in favor of loftier heights and bolder experimentations. Maybe all that experience has fed these songs, too, as there's a wisened approach to the compositions. Paired with the naked aggression and powerhouse vocals is a varied instrumentation and brave altering of tempo. These songs have a punk heart but their brains are scrambled in how to present it the heart's feelings. It's like punk viewed through different lenses, or a tribute album of great punk songs by various bands, some punk some not. That the band chose to record these songs to celebrate their 25th anniversary as a band is extremely telling, as they truly went back their beginnings to dredge this up. The album is an experience that's sometimes rollicking fun, sometimes tear in your beer, but always an interesting ride. The stomp of "Teeth" that opens the record is a great indication of what lies inside, for the most part, with all instruments blazing to the finish line. This sentiment is echoed on "I'm So Happy" and "32 Weeks," as well, but the moments are staggered in between tracks that slow it down a bit, bringing across a purified version of the song at its most naked, without the pomp and circumstance that sometimes comes with the genre. What I hear most of all on the record is how these songs influenced the band in the beginning and how that spirit affected every release since. - Rob Devlin
Bill Laswell, "Aftermathematics Instrumental"
Bill Laswell is trying way too hard. He couldn't decide whether or not this record was going to be broadcast from Mars, made danceable by solid rhythms from the past, or infected with the spirit of imagination and experimentation and this more than enough to hurt the album. There are all sorts of pseudo-melodies winding their way between bass-heavy rhythm sections and musty turntable effects, but none of them stand out or doing anything like create the feel of a hook. Now and then there's a groove established by way of bass guitar and record-scratching, but none of them stand out over the other; it's as if every instrument was made to take center stage. This is a solo record for all heavy and groggy instruments in the court of nothing. At once a song can feel like an excursion into Jamaica, a shout out to the beat-masters of yesterday, and a trip into the drug-fuelled, hallucinogenic march of the future. "Black Dust" is a perfect example; the bass sounds great, the rhythm is heavy and hot, and there's a hint of some exotic instrumentation weaving its way out of the background; but none of these elements ever mix together. They clash like President Bush and common sense. The sound of Casio keyboards imitating disco-era horns don't synch well with the grit and grime of funky rhythms and sumptuous bass pounding. I can appreciate someone who wants to push boundaries and create new sounds for others to work with, but Laswell simply isn't doing that or, in the very least, he isn't doing it well enough. With a mix like this, all of the elements can't work together in a perfect unity; something has to be sacrificed (I'd like it if it were all the faux-psychadelia and space-inspired thematics) for it to work. - Lucas Schleicher
Vertonen, "The Ocean is Gone, the Ship is Next"
As far as creating atmospherics is concerned, the merging of similar sounds and muddy samples works fine in a simple and amateur way. This principle cannot be applied to a fifty minute record of unconventional recording processes. Nothing leaps out at me in any significant way on this disc; many of the sounds are intriguing in and of themselves, but they don't work out when stretched to times well over ten minutes. I have a feeling that they wouldn't work out at periods of five or six minutes. While there are variations in sound and theme on each of the tracks, none of the themes fall into a distinct relationship with eachother and this ends up being unsatisfactory. "Four Chambers Plus Their Various Fluids" has a great spot near the middle of it that features the rattling of metal pipes, awkward springs, and busted pendulums, but it doesn't sync into the rest of the song and emerges from the previous section like a young child on stilts. It ultimately moves nowhere and returns to silence when covered up by other sounds. On the other hand, "Some Trio Study (#2)" feels as if it belongs in a retirement home; it's a loop of some wonderful melodic samples that stretch into infinity and change only slightly for the course of five minutes. The effect is stunning for the first minute and then the monotony wears thin. The best and the worst is saved for last; "Harbor Surfacant" features some stretched and pitch samples of classic instruments rotating and dying in a mess of pops and claps. It is by far the most inspiring of the five pieces, but that does not hide the fact that what could've been a journey into the darker realms of thought ends up sounding more like a damaged toy piano. There's no dynamics at play to keep things interesting for the nine minute running time. I just can't sit through it without checking the time to see if it's over, yet. The sounds are fun here and there, but Vertonen simply cannot come up with an arrangement that stays consistently interesting. - Lucas Schleicher
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