July 3, 2010

Foals Are Growing Up!

BAND NAME: Foals

LP TITLE: Total Life Forever

LABEL: Transgressive Records

TRACKS: 11

RATING: 8.5/10

Occasionally a song will come along that is so sonically flawless, that short of the artists responsible declaring their forthright love for Hitler’s policies, committing mass murder, or worse, selling their music to Starbucks – you will forgive them for almost anything. “Spanish Sahara” is such a single. Foals are such a group.

And Foals’ sophomore album, Total Life Forever, is a damn good listen.

The Oxford quintet erupted onto the music scene with the 2008 release of their debut, Antidotes. While the record was technically a commercial success, and saw the beginning of Foals’ sojourn to stardom - the musical cognoscenti abruptly dismissed and discredited the band as ‘a flash in the pan’ or ‘just another fad’ or (insert some other seldom used and incredibly pretentious criticism.) This lukewarm response led many to believe that Foals were just another brit-pop and angular-sounding band of haircuts.

Foals however, seemed nonchalant about the cynical and critical comments, and following the release of Antidotes, took a two-year break from the music scene. After the initial flurries of theories and speculations as to why the band had ceased to operate, Foals became a dated and obsolete topic.

So you can imagine the surprise, scepticism and closet-anticipation that was felt, when Foals announced the release of album number two. A record that the band had been pottering away at during their ‘break.’

Foals is undoubtedly an Internet buzz band. By definition, a buzz band is any group that receives a lot of online attention. This concept is a creation that was spawned by the Internet, following the MP3 boom and the subsequent demise of album sales. Buzz bands are usually top acts on Myspace, with a profile view count that exceeds the population of many small countries. Buzz bands are intrinsically aligned with the hipster zeitgeist: where the avant-garde and alternative dovetail headlong with explicit consumerism and mainstream acceptance. For proof of this contradiction, look no further than lo-fi buzz bands such as Neon Indian and Wavves - both of whom are backed by Mountain Dew’s trendy record label.

So yes, a large portion of Foals’ success can be attributed to the Internet. But this concept of ‘the buzz’ is also a huge detriment to bands of Foals calibre. For one, the hype and expectancy surrounding Foals’ sophomore album was suffocating. After all the press and ad-space Foals received (partly due to their affiliation with Warner music), and all the superlatives thrown around in conjuncture with Total Life Forever; people were expecting perfection. The anticipation was so high that naturally it would consume itself – reach a peak and then implode acrimoniously.

Another negative impact of ‘the buzz’ is the immediate correlation to all other buzz bands – Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and the aforementioned Mountain Dew associates.

But Foals has an edge over their consciously ironic peers for a few reasons. One, unlike most buzz bands, Foals hail from Great Britain and actually have the English accent that so many American groups attempt to feign. Also, they really don’t give a shit.

While Total Life Forever may prove to be cut from the same majestic and holy shroud that graced Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest - Foals achievement is far less self-important. Their peers still consider themselves as artists of the old paradigm, and are unwilling to admit that the rapid proliferation of music culture on the Internet has actually benefitted the music scene. These artists are so occupied, nay obsessed in resurrecting and reliving a bygone era (only releasing music on vinyl, refusing to put their music on iTunes etc) that they basically alienate an entire demography of listeners who don’t care about the ethics and ideology – they just want the music. Foals are completely free of this pretentious and ridiculous attitude, and just want to have fun making music. The result of this is an album of catchy, melodic and danceable tracks that sound just as good on an iPod as they would at a club.

Total Life Forever is an unabashedly pop album. Post-dance is another apt description. Foals pay homage to late 80s British new wave/synthpop/dance groups a la Roxy Music, Tears for Fears and late Bowie – using catchy choruses, driving dance rhythms and a touch of funk.

Foals create beautiful plangent soundscapes with the use of many multi-textured layers; the presence of subtle intricacies gives Foals’ music their hypnotic sound. With every listen, you discover components of the tracks you previously had no idea existed. At times the pulsating syncopation and throbbing beat drones out everything else and it is difficult to distinguish the vocals from the swirling concoction of sound. This makes for excellent dance floor music – but in fact there is so much lurking just beneath the surface. Foals showcase their musicality by deftly integrating a wide spectrum of sounds, textures and sharp fast-paced beats – then dosing the whole brew with splashes of static ambience and reverberation. The product of such a mix is a record that is atmospheric, spacious, haunting and thoroughly danceable.

Total Life Forever is consistent and has a logical flow to it, with no tracks seeming that far out of place. Album opener “Blue Blood” sets the mood for the album – deep, slightly melancholic and emotionally resonant. Frontman Yannis Philippakis’ crooning vocals emerge from an abyss of noise, and then instrument after instrument joins in, until a great wall of sound is created. Also found on this track, are hints of Foals’ previous foray into afropop, with the result sounding like an electronic and vastly more complex version of Vampire Weekend. Bona fide song of the year contender, “Spanish Sahara,” is an epic behemoth that starts out slow and suspenseful, and builds up to a moving and intense climax. Philippakis’ voice plaintively rings out, guitar joins in, drums crash and rumble, synths tremor, and the track soars heavenwards. “Afterglow” has Yannis channelling Robert Smith (The Cure) with vocals that drift over aqueous soundscapes. It's as brash and as danceable as anything the band has ever done.

Total Life Forever is a huge step in the right direction for Foals. Many times the band scales some truly impressive heights - while always suggesting that there is plenty of room for more. If anything this record simply shows signs of maturity and growth, and is proof that Foals are well on their way to becoming stallions.

May 22, 2010

Album Review - Harlem

BAND NAME: Harlem

LP TITLE: Hippies

LABEL: Matador Records

TRACKS: 16

RATING: 7/10

“The only band we like is Nirvana. The only album we like is Nevermind. The only song we like is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” No, this is not an obituary for a delusional albeit loyal Nirvana fan that took his own life after realising that Kurt Cobain was never coming back. And this isn’t even the press release for a Nirvana tribute band that stubbornly refuse to learn, or write any other song, in fear of selling out and dishonouring the aforesaid grunge legends.

These are in fact the words of Harlem, a 3-piece Austin based outfit that take the term garage rock as literally as possible.

And so you might make a pre-conceived judgement about the group’s 2nd record, Hippies: of being nothing more than a novelty act by overtly eager Nirvana wannabees.

Oh how wrong you would be.

Harlem is the passion project of Michael Coomer and Curtis O'Mara – Tucson natives who migrated to the live music capital of the world: Austin, Texas. The two comrades have been playing together since adolescence and therefore have developed a unique synergy that sets them apart from the bevy of tuneless and asynchronous noise-rock purveyors. Though occasionally out of tune yet by no means out of sync, Coomer and O'Mara equally divide songwriting credits and instrumentation on Hippies, and the fine line of this balancing act makes for a far more intricate and engaging listen.

Hippies is indisputably a record based in the past. It acts as the cliff notes for entire musical eras – Blues, rockabilly, surf-pop, punk, grunge and garage rock are all revisited (ironically the one genre we would have expected from an album with this title is missing), remastered and covered in a thick layer of gauze before being spat out for public consumption. And as is true of any genuine exercise in revivalism, from the point of view of the artist, it is ultimately all about the escape. An escape to a time of innovation and passion: be it the anarchic chaos of the Sex Pistols, or the sundrenched harmonies of The Beach Boys. Thus, the more accurate, familiar and faithful the music on the record is to its past equivalent, the closer said revivalist can get to the romanticised times. In other words, rather than labelling Hippies as an unoriginal copy, one should see it as an attempt to recapture the authenticity and spirit of great moments in musical history: moments that the lads from Austin were denied by the inconvenience of being born too late.

Over the course of Hippies, and through the range of bygone styles and genres, we realise that we are witnessing the evolution of rock music take place on this lo-fi sleeper of a record. From Chicago blues (“Stripper Sunset”), to 60s surf-pop (“Number One”), to Buddy Holly-esque power ballads (“Be Your Baby”), to thrashy punk (“Friendly Ghost”), to a sugar-coated rendition of grunge masterpiece “Lithium” (“Gay Human Bones”) - Harlem has merged the shambolic history of rock into a concise album format. And yet there is something distinctly less threatening about the rock-influenced songs on this record. It is almost as if the original intensity and motive has been extracted, in favour of something fun and easy to dance to. One could say that Harlem is punk, without the aggression; or grunge, without the depression. It is up to the listener to decide whether this is a positive or negative thing.

Yet all these genres have one thing in common when channelled through the Harlem machine – they come out stripped-down and raw. Raw is a word that seems to arise a disproportionate amount of times when discussing Hippies. The record completely lacks any studio sheen whatsoever, and sounds so unadulterated that one gets the impression of a home or garage recording. But Hippies is Harlem’s inaugural release on the feted Matador Records – which has produced equally scuzz/fuzz records by acts such as Fucked Up, Kurt Vile, Jay Reatard (R.I.P.), Girls and Sonic Youth. Contrary to Harlem’s first album that was distributed on a minute scale by a now disbanded recording company, Hippies was recorded in the studio in a perhaps more conventional way then Harlem were accustomed to. Yet lest you read this as a pre-emptive excuse for producing a second-rate product - understand that Harlem’s sound has changed very little, and the group’s knack for penning driven and jagged lo-fi accomplishments is still very much present. If anything has changed, it would be that their sound is more refined, honed and simply more mature than their first release; and that kind of change should be embraced and not shunned.

Energy is another word that describes the overall feeling and aesthetic of Hippies. The record teems with frenetic energy, the truculence of youth and a brash lack of subtlety. The end result is a raucous, wild and exhausting listening experience. It succeeds both as a product of modern-day low attention spans, and as their hopeful panacea – by throwing everything they’ve got into each song and creating an exceptionally contagious collection of tracks, that on a whole clock in at around 40 minutes. By increasing the number of songs on the album to 16, and decreasing track length, to a mean average of two and a half minutes, Harlem has successfully, and probably inadvertently, created the perfect album for this generation of listeners; short songs that pack a punch, and enough of a varied theme to keep one interested - so hats off to the boys for that.

Yes we can read between the lines and overanalyse to the point of dehumanization. But at the end of the day, Hippies is a no-frills garage-rock record that is fun and energetic, and the utter lack of pretence is a breath of fresh air in this era of overproduced corporate drivel. It is true that their sound may not be completely original, and that the album may not flow seamlessly, but this doesn’t detract from the listening experience. And at its core, Hippies is a celebration of 50-plus years of rock music, distilled to its natural essence – so appreciate it for that if nothing else.

April 15, 2010

Is Washed Out the Future of Electronic Music?

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Though this Marxist quote was generally referring to something other than the music industry, it can be applied just as accurately to it. Take for instance, the disco movement. Beginning in the 70s, early disco was a glorious albeit gaudy snapshot in musical history. Fast forward a few decades and we have the tragic rebirth of disco. This post-disco period is a time many music historians tend to conveniently forget out of sheer embarrassment. But fortunately, this phase faded rather fast, and now, come the first decade in the 21st century, we see the ghost of disco infiltrate our airwaves again. This time however it is done with ironic intentions in mind so is therefore accepted into society without ridicule. First created, then tragically reinstated, and then satirically born again; history has the tendency to repeat itself.

In short, we live in an era of post prefixes (post-punk, post-rock, post-grunge…) and revivals. We are so obsessed with taking a dated concept and injecting new life into it, that in the process we are losing our innovative spark. Music-wise, this means a lot of hearing the same old things, over-and-over again. So if repeating history too many times will inevitably end up in farce, clearly we need to create something brand-new and unprecedented.

You have to give it to Washed Out for trying damn hard to create a new sound that is not confined to any past era or post genre.

Washed Out is the one-man-project of multi-instrumentalist, Ernest Greene. He creates music in his parent’s house in rural South Carolina. He shuns corporate record moguls, and instead distributes limited numbers of cassettes to only his closest relations. He shies away from media attention, and was labelled agoraphobic for his general distaste of the outside world. And yet Washed Out has been celebrated by the musical elite and raved over by critics and listeners alike.

Perhaps Mr Greene errs on the side of the quixotic. Or perhaps he simply enjoys the allure of exclusivity and finds comfort in his lavish dream worlds. This could explain his latest creation, Life Of Leisure, a record that resembles a woozy Technicolor frolic through a field of opiates.

On this fresh and hazy record, the gentle shifts of rhythm and melody triggers nostalgic responses and provide a perfect platform for reconciliation, and meditation. The record plays like a sleepless night, where perception is enhanced and reality is altered.

This sonic haze and postmodern ambience is a taxonomist’s nightmare. Of course many have come up with their own tags to describe this music: Dream-pop, chill-wave, post-electro, lo-fi, glo-fi and no-fi; they all are slightly imperfect phrases for describing a style of music that is generally one or all of the following: lackadaisical, hypnotic, cassette-recorded, warped, affable yet not encouraging, pleasantly apathetic, sun-baked, laid-back, slightly out of focus and… Washed Out.

Yet as far as labelling goes, perhaps the aforementioned do not do Life of Leisure justice. A solid piece of sonic architecture, the record assembles an array of sounds and textures, adds sporadic splashes of static atmosphere and in the process creates a listening environment that is truly magnificent.

The vocal prowess of Ernest Greene remains something to be reckoned with. He seduces us with enigmatically opaque lyrics, a breathless urgency and crystalline arpeggios. His languid vocals float weightlessly above the ebb and flow of the melody below.

In fact, so relaxed and lethargic are Greene’s musings that one almost picks up a sense of boredom. And yet it is boredom without negative connotations. It is the kind of boredom that spurs artists like Greene to retreat to their bedroom and experiment with synthesized aesthetics. It is the kind of boredom that then inspires individuals to turn those electronic webs of irresolution, into fully realised songs. It is the kind of boredom that should not be frowned upon, but on the contrary, embraced - for boredom leads to innovation.

Life Of Leisure sounds surprisingly contemporary, and at the same time painfully familiar. The half articulated musical messages evoke countless sentimental connections and unreachable desires. Layers of sound are fed through a filter of nonchalance, which gives the record an emotionally distant feel; though this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ernest Greene’s electro-vignettes are all recorded in his parent’s house, on dated recording software. But again, this adds to the mystery and attraction of Washed Out’s music. Greene seems to attack the recording process with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence. Some instruments are recorded live, whereas others are simply loops downloaded from the Internet. Occasionally you can hear a snippet of conversation, or footsteps, or birdsong, and it makes you wonder whether the effect is the result of an overlooked recording device, or a precisely planned vision.

Washed Out’s music does not strive to enhance or better your life, but to help you simply appreciate the now. Ernest Greene is not enlightened nor does he claim guru status; on the contrary he’s a giddy if naive Southerner that has found happiness within his artistic medium. Pushing the confines of what is perceived to be electronic music, Greene explores various genres and in doing so crafts his own entirely. Life Of Leisure could perhaps be described as the encapsulation of relaxation and happiness; or better yet, the rejection of anxiety and fear. No, this won’t change your life or help you understand the world better, but it will give you a 20-minute break from the harsh realities of Western life. And in a place where time is money, isn’t that worth something?



February 1, 2010

Album Review: Vampire Weekend - Contra


BAND NAME: Vampire Weekend

LP TITLE: Contra

LABEL: XL Recordings

TRACKS: 10

RATING: 7.5/10

The modern day rock star job description states that, one must look, sound and act like ridiculous, pretentious caricatures of themselves, at all times. Some have a deep, rudimentary understanding of this way of life, and succumb to tabloid wishes by refusing to drive unless thoroughly intoxicated, and living by the maxim of, “this aint a party until I get kicked out of the club for either engaging in a vicious brawl, or being in possession of class A narcotics.” Others, like many self-proclaimed rappers, were born ludicrous and so arrogant, that they had to become famous and widely revered, to avoid imploding in a blaze of impotent self-hatred.

Enter Vampire Weekend: a New York quartet who completely contradict the aforementioned rock star ideals of addiction, self-absorption and lunacy. Instead of fast cars and cocaine, the members of Vampire Weekend commute on bicycles and indulge in gourmet French cuisine. Instead of diamond-encrusted jewellery that probably cost more than the average consumer’s yearly income, Vampire Weekend prefers loafers and pastel sweaters. And instead of songs about drugs and promiscuous sex, Vampire Weekend sings about punctuation, classical architecture, higher education and post-modern society. But their debut record has reached gold status, their photo has adorned numerous internation al music magazines, and the band has performed at some of the most prestigious locations in the world. So without a doubt the boys of Vampire Weekend are as much rock stars as any cocaine snorting, fast-car driving, attention seeking deadbeat.

Ask any band and they will tell you that their second album is always steeped in scepticism and incredulity. It seems to be an unspeakable curse that the second record should often be a disappointment and merely a hurdle to get to album number three and beyond. A few daring artists have attempted to leap from debut to third album, but unfortunately they realised a second album is inevitable, and avoiding it is about as easy as unbending a corkscrew via telekinesis. Though The John Butler Trio ingeniously found a way of avoiding the second album debacle, by entitling their sophomore release Three – the album went platinum.

Now Vampire Weekend’s Contra, not only suffers from second album syndrome, but also has to deal with being a follow up to one of the most blogged-over, hyped up and successful debuts ever released in the 21st century music scene. After such an incredible first album, the expectation surrounding Vampire Weekend’s second release was suffocating – the public were expecting something great, and if Vampire Weekend did not deliver at least an equally admirable second release, they faced industry pariahdom. Most other bands would have been slightly derailed by the hype accompanying their eponymous debut and the sheer weight of expectation and pressure heaped onto their second album. But it’s quite clear by now that Vampire Weekend is not most other bands, and that they play by their own set of rules. And if anyone can overcome the aged curse of the sophomore slump, then Ezra Koenig and his band of educated over-achievers, most certainly can.

Contra is a more mature, more diverse and simply more substantial (despite clocking in at 36 minutes) album that shows an emotional depth not present on the band’s debut. The opening run of songs is characterized by a soft and wide-eyed melodic gracefulness. “Horchata” harnesses a gentle calypso beat to evoke a nostalgic reverie. Front man and lyricist Ezra Koenig rhymes horchata (which is a Mexican beverage) with balaclava, Aranciata and then Masada. “White Sky” is a multi-textured Afro-pop joy - a stirring homage to the Manhattan skyline, surpassing any other musical intricacies found on their debut. Yet all albums have their low points and on Contra it is tracks three and four. “Holiday,” a rather mainstream ska-pop workout attempts to re-capture the light-hearted vigour of numbers such as “M79” and “A-Punk,” but without the customary √©lan. And “California English,” the band’s ironic approach to auto-tune, ends up being a sonic farce, which is, confusing, irritating and entirely skippable. But on the whole Contra delivers. It will surely please Vampire Weekend fans, but will probably not turn naysayers into believers.

Because of its eclecticism, the appeal of Contra is relatively limited to a small group of listeners. People who enjoy music that has lyrics that may require a dictionary to decipher; music that features rhythms from around the world - in short, Vampire Weekend appeals to an audience of intelligent, cultured and possibly affluent individuals. So if one tried to introduce Vampire Weekend to, say a classic rock or hip-hop fan, it would be similar to attempting to explain existential beliefs to a born-again Christian.

What Mr. Koenig really has strived to achieve with Contra is the respect of cynics and sceptics who unfairly dismissed Vampire Weekend's eponymous debut as a over-ambitious imitation of Paul Simon's Graceland, penned by a crew of post-collegiates far too convinced that they're clever and quirky, with a presumably superficial understanding of the African sounds they were stealing. The band's preppy smugness undoubtedly rubbed many people the wrong way. But instead of trying to live it down, Vampire Weekend quite wisely chose instead to live it up.

Vampire Weekend seem more prepared this time around. Yes their tracks are still imbued with Afro-Pop rhythms, but with Contra these tribal beats meld seamlessly with Rostam Batmanglij’s synthesizers and guitar lines and sound right at home. Instead of using African music as a gimmick to sound different from the status quo, the band uses the rhythms to enhance and enrich their songs. Filled with new ideas, yet altogether familiar at the same time, Contra is no radical leap in any new direction, but rather a calculated step towards a maturity and precision that only comes with time

Vampire Weekend is the thinking man’s band. Ezra writes lyrics that would serve him very well in a game of Scrabble – they would be cloying if not sung with such relish. And Vampire Weekend is the rich man’s band. With music videos that are often mistaken for Ralph Lauren commercials, Vampire Weekend wear their affluence and privilege on their sleeve, and though often delving into the pretentiousness and self-parody, they do not attempt to conceal their Ivy League smugness which I suppose is commendable. Vampire Weekend is also the cultured man’s band - drawing influence from African tribal rhythms, Mexican Mariachi beats, and Caribbean grooves. And you see, this is why Vampire Weekend is so good. They play what they know, and do it so well. Yes they are smart, rich and privileged white boys, but they don’t try to hide it.

There will always be haters and cynics, but based on the success, both critical and commercial, of their first two albums, there doesn't appear to be a tangible limit to what future splendour the boys of Vampire Weekend may achieve.