The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: Music Reviews

Affection through Attrition: Me vs. Tears for Fears

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My partner and I disagree of very few matters of taste. Such is their rarity that these tiny rifts have been upgraded to perennial inside jokes. My loathing for post-Gabriel Genesis, my general distaste for 80s pop production––such is the glue from which lasting relationships are forged.

The first time I listened to Tears for Fears was because of a challenge; both of us were “assigning” music we liked but that the other didn’t know and gauging the reaction. Back then, I thought their titanically popular Songs from the Big Chair felt like a synthetic, operatic, and emotionally oversaturated album injected with irritating 80s production. That’s more or less the same evaluation I have now, except that my value judgment has changed. A number of explanations for this shift suggest themselves:

  1. My partner is a persistent and patient taste-manipulator who is slowly taking control of my very faculties of perception.
  2. I’ve mellowed out and allowed my taste to either broaden or become more lax and lazy, depending on my mood and your perspective.
  3. Tears for Fears’ old records were transfigured through some kind of divine intervention.
  4. Metal Gear Solid V’s constant stream of 80s music tapes have chipped away at my resistance to 80s pop and synth-heavy music in general.

I would accept at least three of these explanations as plausible “prime movers” in my shift in perspective.  Perhaps the deepest one, however, is the fact that, compared to three years ago, my entire emotional landscape has transformed. Partly because of the stresses of gender transition and partly because of getting older and more tired, I’ve become more receptive to works that are melodramatic/operatic. Yes, Metal Gear Solid V acclimated me to 80s pop over many hours of listening to it while dispatching fascist South African mercenaries with RPGs. But without this more basic internal change, I would probably just have ignored all those tapes and listened to ambient noise instead.

Once I had given Tears for Fears another real chance, downloading Songs from the Big Chair on a whim and listening to it under the moonlight (and the roof: it was raining outside). I came to the second track, “Working Hour:”

One of the most irritating trends in 80s pop music was the blatant abuse of the saxophone, both in its incorporation into songs and in the production process. During the decade of Sting’s solo work and Kenny G, saxophones, which I tend to welcome in songs from other decades, often feel as though they’re being used for cheap emotional ploys. And, indeed, this was my initial impression of “Working Hour,” which begins with a brief instrumental intro featuring a saxophone solo. Not only this, but it’s paired with harps and bright synth atmospherics. The introduction suddenly shifts at one point as the rhythm of the song itself takes hold and the song builds up layers of instrumentation until it takes full shape just before the vocals kick in at the two minute mark.

Everything that follows is somehow more resonant to me now, especially the sense we get that the narrator is held back and confused by fear, fear that originates from some vague point in space or time that we can’t grasp immediately. You could also read the song as a cryptic allusion to the alienation of wage labour, albeit presented in a misty fashion. As always, songwriter Roland Orzabal’s lyrics are are sung with clarity and intensity but don’t immediately make sense or, I would argue, need to convey their semantic meaning. Most of Tears for Fears’ appeal is about performance and drama, and in this regard “Working Hour” proves its quality.

To cautiously generalize my observations on this topic:

Taste, like desire, is clearly a highly variable facet of someonee’s personality, strongly affected by close relationships, family history, and their implication in larger class, cultural, and national structures. It has the capacity to change unexpectedly in response to a whole swathe of events and interventions, but curiously remains one of the ways in which people try to stake out identities for themselves. My encounter with Tears for Fears and my transition from a hater to an admirer is one small stream in the larger processes of culture and class formation going on all around me. Best not to take too much specific insight from it, but it’s a fun example of how changes in taste are usually part of larger changes in a person’s or community’s life.

Site Recommendation: Radiooooo.com

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I’m not the biggest fan of the commercial genre of “world” music. Though I appreciate the work of people like David Byrne and many, many luminaries of British rock bringing music from the global peripheries to my attention, the fact is that it’s still selecting the most marketable and easily categorized music from a given country or––worse––continent and putting it up for sale to a hip crowd of Western consumers.

Still! I occasionally hanker for a 1970s Soviet cover of “So Happy Together” called “Vsegda Budem Vmeste.” Or maybe I feel a potato chip craving for the decadent yacht-pop of 1980s bubble-era Japan. Or, hell, 1970s East German funk rock. Radiooooo is a music streaming service that represents a seemingly infinite well of hilarity and genuine discovery. You click on a decade tab at the bottom, pick a country on the attractively old-school map, and let the site bring you to audio heaven. You can also adjust the mood to make it “slow,” “fast,” or (the only really valid option) “weird.” I’ve already spent a few hours browsing around and am impressed with both the interface and the selection of songs––there’s much more kitschy pop from 1960s China than one would expect! If you feel charitable or especially impressed, you can even buy the song straight from the site, though I have not yet been so moved.

Most importantly, the interface gives you a relatively decent map projection of the world to click around in, which means you’re just as likely to venture way out and find something unexpected as to stay on familiar shores. You can get at least a vague idea of global trends in (mainly) popular styles of music, which is attractive to an eclectic discovery-oriented listener like me. If you’re looking for something a bit quirkier and more specific than Pandora or Spotify or feel like your musical tastes are stuck in a box, Radiooooo might be the site to set it free. At least you’ll have a few laughs at how much of the music from the “good old days” was absolute tripe.

Shearwater: Jet Plane and Oxbow

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I met my future significant other at a Shearwater show in February, 2012. Technically, it was a Sharon Van Etten show, but I was there for Jonathan Meiburg and company. They opened with a set of songs from Animal Joy, their latest release at the time, and cemented themselves as one of my favourite working rock bands. Amid the general exhaustion of rock music’s vitality in both the mainstream and underground scenes, Shearwater has endured and evolved to produce numerous creative successes. Jet Plane and Oxbow proves that rock can still support more than endless recreations of cherished old sounds and introspective banalities.

Of course, the album is still partly an exercise in period-piece revivalism. Specifically, Meiburg has said in interviews that Jet Plane evokes 1980. The opening of that disastrous decade certainly boasted a set of landmark musical releases that would define pop going forward. Peter Gabriel III introduced gated reverb to listeners in its opening track, Brian Eno and David Byrne produced one of electronic music’s blueprints in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, while the latter also released Remain in Light with Talking Heads. Jet Plane channels these influences in its use of analog synths, peculiar percussion instruments like rototoms, and, on tracks like “Filaments,” grooves that clearly nod in Byrne’s direction.

Beyond all these 80s stylistic signifiers, of course, is Meiburg’s writing and vocal delivery. His voice has always been dramatic and unnerving, his lyricism drawing on his scientific work with birds and ecosystems to produce songs that sweep over their subjects with broad brushstrokes. Like many rock lyricists with an interest in “big” subjects, Meiburg prefers a suggestive and indirect approach to songwriting, using words that are specific enough to affect listeners without articulating his own point of view in much detail. This is especially evident because his writing in Jet Plane is more overtly politicized than I can remember it being before. From “Quiet Americans,” we have this stanza:

“Shake the memories off, hide the evidence under
Piss on the world below
Like a dog that knows its name
Where are the Americans?”

It’s far from the Marxist particulars you would get from The Coup, Bambu, or Pete Seeger,  but this is as explicit as the invective gets on Jet Plane. Meiburg clearly expresses his antipathy for American arrogance and entitlement, but carefully couches these thoughts to avoid sloganeering or calls to action. When he’s successful, he can produce remarkable results like this bit from the end of “Pale Kings:”

“You know how sometimes
You’re so tired of the country
Its poptones and its pale kings
And its fences like knives
But in the same breath
Your heart breaks with the feeling
With love and with grieving
For its irrational life.”

Spread out in the context of the song, with its dense production and complex rhythms, these words convey ambivalence and heartbreak. At other times, the vagueness can feel evasive, as if Meiburg is uncomfortable with naming names. Ambivalence is not necessarily a useful or even a beautiful or truthful emotion when protesting violent dispossessions and enclosures. More often than not, though, the songs work for me because I appreciate the way the songs contextualize these half-formed protests in vast landscapes. “Glass Bones” captures a shifting geography “anchored in rust, erasing the wilderness,” captures a sense of paranoia and loss connected to the environment. Nature has always been at the core of Shearwater’s work, and the words and music here are much better at capturing the awe and sad spectacle that define our current relationship to nature than they are at articulating our political situation.

Without overblowing its significance, I can say that Jet Plane and Oxbow is another strong release from Shearwater. If nothing else, it reminded me what intelligent and well-written rock albums can achieve given a bit of ambition, and I imagine I’ll be enjoying this album long into the year. As our bizarre winter winds itself down, maybe a calm spring will follow.

Tiger’s Year in Music 2015

Two trends marked 2015 for me.

  1. Listening to less music than I have in several years, especially new music.
  2. More emphasis on listening to artists and albums from decades gone by.

Availability has always been an important driver of my musical taste. When I was primarily buying my music on eMusic Canada, for example, albums were priced based on how many tracks they had regardless of the length of said tracks. This incentivized buying jazz, classical, and avant-garde albums that had few songs but still boasted an LP length. Why spend $15 per month on one album when you could get five with a little creativity?

Lately, however, my main sources of music have been streaming sources and more stringent download stores like iTunes. Trends one and two both stem largely from this shift in availability. Streaming services that interrupt your listening with ads are tolerable for listening to singles and short albums, particularly in the pop genre, but tend to ruin the experience of a jazz album for me, with classical simply being a no-go; I never want to be listening to Mahler when decontextualized ads hurt my years between symphonic movements.

A more hectic and harried lifestyle also contributed to this shift, which tended to push me towards “comfortable” music that did not demand as much attention from me. I spent far less time isolated and listening to music for its own sake than in previous years, which meant that I gravitated to more immediately flashy and striking work, ignoring, perhaps, the value of less explosive music.

Despite these two trends, however, I can still look at 2015 as a year where music had a considerable impact on my life and defined many of my key emotional moments. For this post, I’ll highlight three of the more powerful pieces I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this year below, bringing especial attention to those that I feel have been either neglected or obscured by buzzier competition. Enjoying music should never be a frazzled and consumption-driven activity, bent on following tends or keeping up with the rapidly-evolving conversation, and I hope to become a bit more disengaged from the hype machine in 2016.

Polar Bear: “The First Steps”

British band Polar Bear is new to me, but has been producing eclectic genre explorations within a loose jazz framework for many years. Same as You, the album from which this is taken, consists of six tracks that use sparseness and, occasionally, vast amounts of time (with a long average track length) to explore dub and ambient music at a relaxed pace. Grooves and simple saxophone lines coexist with drones and a bevy of percussive ticks and snaps, lending the album a great deal of coherence despite it being difficult to pin down. Pushing onto some of the same territory that post-rock bands like Chicago’s Tortoise have previously explored, the feeling on “The First Steps” is nonetheless a much warmer and more inviting one, taking the listener to strange places but with a firm and reassuring hand.

Dâm-Funk: “Just Ease Your Mind From All Negativity”

Invite the Light has the rare quality of being 90 minutes long and endlessly re-playable. Around the same time this record dropped, I dug into 1970s Stevie Wonder for the first time, and found they generated similar emotional spaces. Dâm-Funk’s productions and lyrics radiate positivity, often without much subtlety. It’s music that’s conscious of life’s difficulties but attempts to deal with them with an easygoing attitude. Encouraging a more optimistic and affirmational approach to life––certainly not my normal M.O.––this track stuck with me all year as ear candy that wasn’t just “think positive” claptrap. It’s simple and direct, relatively grounded, and impossible to stop listening to once it starts.

Kamasi Washington: “The Rhythm Changes”

For a time this year I worked a job with an excessive commute. Most of the time, I would listen to music and read on the bus to pass the time. When I checked the statistics at the end of last week, Kendrick Lamar’s “Institutionalized” was my most frequently-played track, but by far my favourite song to put on while sitting for hours on the bus or standing in the cold waiting for said bus to arrive was “The Rhythm Changes.” Every track on The Epic is full, often combining it soul-jazz revival instrumentals with rousing choral or individual singing and political speeches. Whether this year’s one jazz-pop crossover hit portends better things for jazz labels and artists in the coming year is anyone’s guess, though I have my doubts. What is sure is that Kamasi Washington will not be soon forgotten, and “The Rhythm Changes” in particular has become permanently lodged in my brain. It’s an anthem about both embracing fluidity and seizing fast to what is worthwhile in life, a message we cannot ignore here in the bleak times we inhabit.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Stretch Music

Stretch Music (Introducing Elena Pinderhughes)

Stretch Music is the third album that the 32-year-old bandleader has composed using his “forecasting cells” technique. Framed by its creator as a means of structuring musical conversations by providing better context for improvisation, this method is the practical means Scott has used to further his goal of stretching the boundaries of jazz to cover as wide a spectrum of musical traditions and dialects as possible. Most immediately, that means that though his core training and vantage point is tied to jazz, his music strives to incorporate R&B, hip hop, and modern pop music into its vocabulary.

Such eclecticism is common to an entire array of artists in contemporary black music. Those who, like Scott, have approached the question of integrating music from different genres include Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and newer players like Kamasi Washington––not even mentioning Badbadnotgood and more traditional jazz bands with a knack for pop interpretation like Mehldau and The Bad Plus. Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat form a complementary pole within pop music, and it’s no surprise that almost all of the men I’ve listed have all collaborated or at least covered each other’s work. What distinguishes Scott from these others, besides his love of engineering his own instruments, is the fact that he’s given his approach a systematic treatment.

At the core of this fairly loose and accommodating system is the concept of communication. Scott defines his music’s success or failure by the clarity with which it communicates emotions and ideas. Forecasting cells, the technical framework through which he works out collective improvisations, are supposedly meant to aid his bands in communicating specific sentiments through sound. In essence, they’re a way for Scott and his band members to engage in mutual criticism, forcing each other to reshape their playing to establish a more disciplined and rigorous form of mutual “discussion” during performances. The same spirit extends to Scott’s feelings on written or verbal criticism. He writes, in a manifesto of sorts for stretch music:

“In my view, a necessary step in the maturation of any artist is the development of the ability to be objective about someone else’s reaction to their work. I feel a wider vision and understanding of music, and oneself, can be gained if artists allow this concept to become part of their artistic process.”

Essentially, in order for a form of music to avoid stagnation, it has to keep a lively critical dialogue going, inclusive of artists and listeners. Incorporating lessons learned from what others feel about your music, Scott suggests, is an important step in self-improvement and in avoiding empty repetition. If music is about communication above all else, it makes sense to gauge the reactions of the people listening. Combined with Scott’s outreach efforts like an app designed to help people break his album apart, make remixes, and learn to hear and play music better and his work in high school music programs and tutoring work, and it looks like at least the outlines of a comprehensive project. It’s not making music and just responding to the decisions of the market as if they’re actually honouring the needs of real people, and it’s not music-as-academic-gesture that could make some important breakthrough but fail to communicate to anyone outside a tiny sphere.

It’s this dedication to working with and through other people and introducing new elements into his music and his band––note the young age of most of his collaborators here––that tempers his voracious eclecticism and makes it something more substantive than merely playing trumpet over a hip hop beat and calling it a new synthesis. This is not to say (at all) that those who have been less vocal or systematic about their approach have not achieved some significant successes, but just that it is useful to have a rough outline of a greater project where music, education, and thoughtful reflection can all be mutually reinforcing.

With all that said, there is not much to add in the way of a traditional review. Scott’s own playing has not advanced considerably past his work in 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah, which is to say that it remains excellent. On “Tantric,” he projects strikingly clear tones into space over snare-heavy drums. It’s certainly reminiscent of hip hop in its rhythms, but what marks this track as a standout is the way it evokes a vast space, mysterious without being alienating. Its the polar opposite of “West of the West,” which explores much knottier terrain, particularly with the aid of bassist Kris Funn. It might fit best into a “fusion” category, integrating electric guitars and a recognizable melody with a very dense beat laid down by the rhythm sections.

The person I noticed the most in the first ten listens or so is Elena Pinderhughes, a flautist who gets an “introducing” credit in the title of the album on iTunes. Though she’s been fairly well known for a flautist for long enough that that she’s hardly being introduced here, she makes a powerful impression. The first track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” sees her working a duet with Scott, and her playing certainly distinguishes Stretch Music from its predecessors more strongly than it would have. She fits in well, though I have difficulty describing precisely how, and I hope to gain more insight with further listens.

To conclude, I would only say that the rhythm section here is magnificent, especially the two drummers who are able to inject fascinating contrasts into the base of the rhythm itself, particularly on songs like “Tantric.” I’m not sure that this album will occupy as much of a place in my life as Christian aTunde Adjuah, especially since I have less time to listen to music, but I feel that this is a quality addition to Scott’s body of work and another exciting confirmation that he’s onto something significant in jazz. I hope he and his collaborators benefits from the recent surge of interest in the space between jazz and pop music.

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf

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Take a look at the commanding heights of the music industry, and you notice that most of the transformations that have occurred in producing and distributing music have left its old guard unaffected. If anything, the core music industry is more centralized than ever, a consequence of banding together to bolster their profit margins through the decline of the CD. Even the basic rituals of album contracts, release dates, and PR are more or less standing in the most lucrative parts of the industry. It’s largely been at the fringes that we’ve seen the intensely networked, more decentralized tendencies enabled by the Internet embed themselves. And even then, it was more because the old structures could no longer provide a full-time job. As in so many areas of life, musicians had to become self-promoters and “business innovators” as a second job to creating music. They’re all neoliberal entrepreneurs, or at least encouraged to do so, and the results, judging by the widespread reports about how even popular bands struggle to pay their rent, are not as promising as DIY utopian rhetoric would have us believe.

Different acts have experimented with different coping mechanisms. There was the notorious tip jar approach that Radiohead took with In Rainbows in 2007, which is now the bedrock of the Humble Bundle game sale model. Meanwhile, we have Chance the Rapper, who has yet to release anything under his own name that that requires you to pay for access––even in theory. His biggest solo release to this point, the exuberant Acid Rap, was a mixtape rather than a commercial product, whose popularity is measured in Youtube views for its songs or download numbers on mixtape sites. With the old centralized capitalist music industry hurting, he has chosen to stick to his own abilities, building webs of associations with big name rappers and producers and selling merchandise to generate publicity and goodwill from fans. And revenue, of course.

Surf is not a Chance the Rapper LP, though it, too, requires no payment. Its creator is Chicago Northsider Nico Segal AKA Donnie Trumpet, an old friend of Chance’s. But Chance does appear on almost every track in some capacity, and the band he put together, the Social Experiment, works as Donnie’s accompaniment. It’s a deliberately communitarian enterprise, sporting a “yes, and” approach to instrumentation, genre, and guest appearances. Its marketing, including the music video for lead single “Sunday Candy,” suggests that (elaborate, heavily rehearsed) community theatre supplies the underlying ethos for Surf. This seems a natural fit for the band, most of whose members developed their skills in high school youth programs and community bands in Chicago. Major label guest stars like Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Big Sean might not be native members of this Chi-town club band, but they’re treated without fanfare or ostentation, hospitably ushered into the spacious good vibes the Social Experiment summons. Jazz, rap, psychedelia, soul, whatever. It’s just about the vibes.

Given that its genesis was so loose and collaborative––and protracted––the music expresses a remarkably cohesive set of themes. The music rides a line between jazz, psychedelic soul, and hip hop, pulling in synthesized beats, real drums, Segal’s omnipresent trumpet work, and whole crowds of harmonized voices. Anti-coolness manifesto “Wanna Be Cool” praises personal authenticity with triumphant trumpets, Chance’s breathless rapping and singing, and overlapping guitars worked into the background. Not surprisingly, references to social media posting come up, and the 21-year-old Chance seemingly recognizes that, despite building his own image through those services, there is a self-destructive side to all the posing in front of the cameras.

Meanwhile, over in “Familiar,” which bridges the two halves of the album, the album makes good on the band members’ protestations that despite the difference between their music and the grim swamp of drill music, they’re all from the same musical scene. After all, how different can they be if Donnie Trumpet can comment sarcastically through his instrument while Chance the Rapper and King Louie commiserate about indistinguishable, vapid women? It’s probably the best instrumentation and arrangement on the album, with a piano, horn section, and even a 1970s-style flute player providing an upbeat accompaniment to the rappers’ cutting comments.

My pet term for huge collective music like this is “Sesame Street music,” and I previously applied it to bands like The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene. Surf’s neo-hippie optimism, excellent playing, and sunshine-drenched production all lend itself to this label, even if a few f-bombs would keep it off PBS. Though it won’t change how music fundamentally “works” for and under capital, I appreciate the attempt to keep production in the family, even if it does reinforce a certain fetishism for localism and smallness that is already too prevalent in independent music. What I see in Surf is a great example of what is possible when a chorus of egos gets roped into a huge sing-in. It’s excellent music with a beautiful way of complimenting the sunny days and sympathizing with you on the rainy ones. A keeper for sure, and hopefully a portent of more to come.

They Might Be Giants: Glean

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Marketing for Glean pitches the album as a cross-section of the band’s Dial-a-Song output. They Might Be Giants coined the name Dial-a-Song for their answering machine service in the 1980s. Fans or curious neophytes could call a Brooklyn-based number and listen to a song play over the line. The band has now existed for over three decades, and its promotional techniques have always been almost as charmingly forward-looking as their music, which has been consistently entertaining since their debut. One problem that might result from cherrypicking the output from their new Dial-a-Song incarnation could have been incoherence, but eclecticism has always been a virtue in itself on TMBG records. Glean is therefore neither a step forward or backward for this long-running band, and its songs more or less stand on their own terms. Mostly I would like to justify analyzing some of my favorite songs on their own merits. As for the album, I’ll leave my judgment right here: it’s worth getting for fans––well beyond the near-mediocrity of their early 2000s work––and a serviceable introduction for those who are just getting into the band, though last year’s Nanobots is a much better record overall. It’s a cabinet of wonders approach to pop music that emphasizes esoteric subject matter, catchy melodies, and wordplay. It’s TMBG again.

Song Rundown: The Highlights

“Music Jail, Pts. 1 & 2”

A two-part song that begins with a shrill violin riff before transitioning into its bouncy main theme, driven by a sax rather than a bass. Part 1 is an invitation to come to the Music Jail, which is vaguely defined but somehow involves “taking a stand.” The tone is a typical TMBG mix of sinister and upbeat, bringing in the violin at moments of climax before transitioning to the second part. Here, we get more of a wind gust, with clarinets dubbed over a guitar-driven rhythm section. John Flansburgh, the glasses-wearing one of the pair, does one of his best vocal performances of the album in this part, pining for someone to post his bail. Music Jail looks much less appealing in the second part.

“I Can Help the Next in Line”

I have an irrational affection for bass-driven songs, and this two-minute ditty features John Linnell, the pretty boy of the group, singing in the role of a clerk of some kind. His persona alternates between warm invitations and threats, asking for the customer to keep his hands visible at all times. “Next in Line” is another song to feature trembling string sections, which is a departure from the norm for TMBG. It closes with a pleasing round between Flansburgh and Linnell, dissipating the tension of the song after a more aggressive guitar bit. Good stuff.

“Unpronounceable”

Ever since joining up with a full rock band in 1994 or so, They Might Be Giants has rocked much harder, not always to good effect for their clever but often slight novelty concepts. “Unpronounceable” is an example of a rock song that preserves the fun eccentricities They Might Be Giants thrive on. Its subject is the narrator’s inability to pronounce someone’s name, which feeds into the style of the song as well: take, for example, the staccato guitar rhythms and the digital distortion added to the song in the bridge. Voices break up and crack, literally destroying pronunciation as we know it. “Unpronounceable” is appealing and melodically sound despite being one of the more conventionally arranged songs on the record.

“Hate the Villanelle”

Having been forced to write villanelles in school, the paranoid hate mongering for complex poetic forms in this song is cathartic. Its lyrics are complex imitating the form it is mocking. Synthesized voices and echoing guitars help Linnell narrate his descent into an inferno of scholarly anxiety. At under two minutes, it’s succinct and threatening, a song that requires little explanation but is probably the most ambitious track here in terms of writing.

“Let Me Tell You About My Operation”

After finishing the last of their children’s albums, TMBG has gotten back into making “adult” records on a regular basis, and the last three they’ve produced have all shared in some patterns. For instance, they all start with rollicking narrative-based songs––”Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” “You’re on Fire,” “Erase”––and, towards the middle of the second half of the record, feature the most daring and, invariably, best song on the album. For Join Us it was “The Lady and the Tiger,” and for Nanobots it was “Darlings of Lumberland,” one of the creepiest and best songs they’ve ever made. “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” is not up to that calibre, but it is without question the best song on the record. Its theme is medical crisis meets urbane swing dance. Jaunty, piercing horn stings, and Flansburgh’s vocal charisma carry this song into my favorites with ease. Even the instrumental breaks manage to impress.

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell

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I beg the reader’s forgiveness for beginning this review by talking not about Sufjan Stevens but about Søren Kierkegaard. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes of Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish poet of anguish, “He hates sin, and yet all his literary skills gravitate around eroticism, and an impotent lusting after sin and ‘the secret of sinning.’” And one step further, “dissatisfied, suffocated, the individual feels as though he is dying before he has lived.” These lines might as well have named Sufjan Stevens, and they help to clarify why I absolutely reject his latest album.

“Carrie and Lowell” is Sufjan Stevens’ seventh LP, an autobiographical work steeped in classical references and tenderly garnished with electro-acoustic arrangements. Finger-picked guitar and banjo strings predominate, coming in cascades of minor chords. Occasionally Stevens brings an organ to whisper beside him, or a synthesizer. Nearly all the vocals exist in a narrow range between multi-tracked, breathy singing and airy falsettos. Every song is bound to an almost desolate aesthetic unity, with the usual explosion of instruments narrowed to bedroom-bound indie folk. It reminds one of nothing so much as “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Judging by its euphoric reception by the press so far, “Carrie and Lowell” is bound to be another musical touchstone for the disaffected set.

Stevens, in a recent interview with Pitchfork, has supplied online exegetes with all the biographical detail they need. In the same interview, he said, “This is not my art project; this is my life.” Though that is obviously untrue, there is a grain of truth. Stevens has always been writing autobiography, but he has dropped the pretext of writing about states or UFOs. HIs lyrics name names, particularly those in the title, which makes the writing more “authentic.” In writing directly about his experience with his late mother and her husband and his suffering in the wake of her death and long absence, he imbues his songs with a palpable emotional force.

Take “John My Beloved,” which constructs a stately frame of Biblical and mythological references that lead him to the line: “There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I’m dead.” Meanwhile a programmed click counts time, the throb of decay that Sufjan earlier brings up on “Fourth of July.”

Given the album’s subject matter, shaped by mourning and touching on everything from drug abuse to suicidal impulses, the funereal tone is expected. But what function does all this psalmody serve? It avoids the temptation of canned comforts, but the album is more corrosive than constructive. Christianity has always had a tortured relationship to death and suffering, often sliding too far into baptizing self-destruction as noble and suffering for its own sake as redemptive.

Stevens, like Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard before him, magnifies the moment of doubt and the suffering of the downtrodden into an icon. One of the consistent themes in the album is the writer’s recourse to faith as a last support. “Jesus I need you, be near, come shield me,” he sings, and though the line carries what was no doubt a genuine ache, I cannot follow this line to its conclusion. Ultimately, the album spirals into knots of self-pity that grow less intense the more the album wears on. Rawness gives way to numbness, and “Carrie and Lowell” ends up reproducing the worst of indie music’s privileged self-obsession despite all of its beautiful phrases. Stevens’ doubts are familiar to me, but I see no value in this music.

I must acknowledge this review is as much self-criticism and criticism of the music. I spent many nights listening to “Age of Adz” while musing on my own transcendent suffering. But if music fails to give life, to meaningfully illuminate my relationship to life as I live it, there is no reason to listen to it. I recommend listeners approach this record with an open mind, ignore the chorus of angels singing this album’s praises, and take from it whatever truth you can. For me, it only solidifies my break with Stevens’ music, marking what I hope is not a point of no return.

The Bad Plus + Kneebody Concert

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I’ve just gotten back to the computer after a stimulating night of jazz music from two modern bands: New York based The Bad Plus and their opener, the LA jazz group Kneebody. Though both groups are broadly similar in being white and drawing either stylistic inspiration or material for interpretation from rock music, with Kneebody doing the former and The Bad Plus the latter, they have significant differences in musical approach. Kneebody is a five-piece group that leans heavily on grooves and a steady pulse to ground its horn section’s exuberant improvisation. Meanwhile, The Bad Plus is a trio, meaning its workouts are almost always first and foremost rhythmic, with less space for solos but, on the flip side, a deeper focus on tight group dynamics. The contrasts proved more than palatable in practice.

Though I have been an enthusiast for jazz for many years, my living situation and location have prevented me from seeing it performed live until now. I came away with some impressions into which I wanted to inject some structure.

1. Connections between music and comedy:

Both of the bands relegated to their bassists the task of announcing songs and interacting with the audience. Each group also leaned heavily on comedy, with The Bad Plus performing what sounded like a spontaneously invented song attempting to sell us merchandise after the show. Each of the band members accentuated the joke with their own musical contributions, and everyone in the––admittedly, Midwestern and politely square––audience, including my partner and me, laughed more than a little. It’s notable that both comedy and music are time-based art forms, and both comedy and music have popular improvised forms. Music is all about stretching and bending time into the right shape, punctuating it and using sound to accentuate the effects of time. Comedy is, famously, about injecting an unexpected shift or change at the right time, many times saying the perfect wrong thing at the correct moment. It’s no surprise, in light of this, that Bugs Bunny cartoons are so heavily linked to a musical score, which can often be just as funny as the action we see.

2. Jazz Audiences:

Keeping in mind that the demographics of the town in which the concert took place are overwhelmingly white, it was no surprise that the audience for the show was virtually all pasty. Jazz developed as a black musical form, and continues to be one of the most vital and innovative veins of black music, but in the United States groups tend to play for white crowds. Contributing to the financial crisis in jazz, those crowds are also aging rather than getting younger. I’m not going to wring my hands about the future of this musical form I love, but it was notable that, though the crowd skewed much younger than I expected, it was a sea of whiteness.

3. Enjoy the vibe

Unlike most pop shows I’ve been to, the presentational form was very subdued and focused intently on properly lighting the musicians and their instruments. No pyrotechnics, no dramatic lighting changes, etc. Perhaps the show could have benefited from those additions, but I think it would have compromised the overall spirit of the show, which was focused on making unexpected pleasures out of sound. It was thoroughly enjoyable regardless of its lack of pomp, which actually highlighted the playing. The music, is, after all, why we were there.

Panda Bear: Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

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Noah Lennox, the Lisbon-based musician who releases his solo work under the Panda Bear name, takes pains to avoid sending out bad vibes with his music. Following the radiant work of psychedelic pioneers like Brian Wilson and later innovators like Spacemen 3––one of whose members acts as producer here––he fashions songs that use sunshine to internalize emotional turmoil. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper,” the fourth Panda Bear album, functions as a feel-good trip, banishing the January clouds with a new emphasis on drum production and return to the beautiful melodies that made 2007’s “Person Pitch” so lauded in the musical press.

If the album can be said to be about anything, it would be the enjoyments and anxieties that typify the experience of a successful artist. That is, the music touches on both the pleasure and precariousness of someone living a middle-class life who fears that stability might be short-lived. A good analogy for this might be the experience of taking a passenger ship on a capricious ocean: paradise that can turn into a hurricane at the slightest drop in the barometer. Indeed, Lennox has noted that several songs in the latter half of “Grim Reaper” resemble sea shanties, song that are intended as both celebrations and coping mechanisms for the hard life at sea. Accompanied by the lyrics, the music can’t help but assume a neurotic guise, a wall of sound protecting the psyche from an approaching tidal wave.

This ambivalence is, paradoxically, most evident in the happiest of the tracks, “Crosswords,” where the narrator reminds himself that “You got it so good. So good, so good.” Sheer repetition wrings the sincerity out of these nostrums. They begin to seem more like words of comfort than arrogance or complacency. Meanwhile, in “Boys Latin,” Lennox frets about looming dark clouds, but sounds arguably more chipper than in “Crosswords.” These emotional disconnects, which can be difficult to hear because of the album’s dense production, settle well with the happy but unsettled mood of the album.

It might be introspective and concerned with self-reflection, but it lacks any investigation into the sources of this anxiety. Insulated from both the class struggles erupting in his native United States and the unrest in Portugal over austerity, Lennox plays the apolitical game rather well, merely reflecting a kind of radically centrist approach to music. Its vagaries are purportedly “universal,” according to the artist’s own words. Sanitized and without specificity, Panda Bear’s writing makes a good companion for the music, tending to be masked by it and somewhat difficult to hear. At the same time, this insularity whitewashed to look like universalism is hardly aspiring to anything great or engaging in the concrete lives of its likely audience. Panda Bear sounds more and more distant the more you listen––distant in space, distant from his own time––and as a result can be profoundly dull, not to mention dreadfully formalistic.

Lyrics come second in Panda Bear songs, though. Despite the tracks here being far more straightforward than comparable ones on Person Pitch or Tomboy, the songs communicate primarily through musical shapes and flow. Drastic changes in tempo are largely absent. Beat-driven songs like “Mr. Noah” maintain a constant, anchored rhythm impervious to the electronic shimmering around it. Synths and strings provide the tranquil mood for “Tropic of Cancer,” which pushes along as a gentle lullaby before ending in an truly strange instrumental coda. After a blister of noise, “Lonely Wanderer” leads the listener into the end of the album with a reflective, piano-driven ballad. It’s all almost stiflingly consistent. Despite the threat of monotony, however, Lennox and company are able to offer enough intriguing sounds to end the album with a salvaging flourish or two. It’s music for relaxation and comfort.

Panda Bear’s music has always scrubbed the detail from the lyrics only to refill it beyond capacity with production and instrumentation. Like most psychedelia, its universalism is meant to be a gateway to personal reflection on behalf of the listener. On what they are meant to ponder, however––that much is still unclear. “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” makes only halfhearted attempts at working through its emotional conflicts, but it makes for a fuzzy, indistinct, but pleasurable listen.

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