GOLD: 50 Years of Lumpy Gravy

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Frank Zappa – Lumpy Gravy

Released August 7th, 1967 on Capitol Records

The front cover of Lumpy Gravy states that it’s a “curiously inconsistent piece which started out to be a ballet but probably didn’t make it.”  The back cover asks “is this phase 2 of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, a bizarre question given that said album didn’t come out until 1968.  It was, in fact, an orchestral piece commissioned by Capitol Records’ Nick Venet; to get around his contract with MGM and Verve, Zappa positioned himself as merely the conductor of the orchestra he cobbled together for the recording.  This cutesy bit of manouvering didn’t stop MGM from threatening to sue, but as subsequent history would show, label heads going after Zappa would prove to be an exercise in futility.  In fact, while waiting for MGM to come to that conclusion, Zappa plowed ahead on a project he called No Commercial Potential (which would make a great name for a retrospective of his career) that would eventually give birth to four albums: We’re Only In It For The Money, a reedited second edition of Lumpy GravyCruising With Ruben And The Jets, and the gloriously bizarre “soundtrack” album Uncle Meat.  The second edition of Lumpy Gravy would be released in 1968 by Verve Records; it would contain pieces of the original orchestral recordings as well as dialogue that was recorded near the studio’s grand piano, which would vibrate with resonance whenever someone spoke near it.  The result is willfully bizarre musique concrete, the sort of thing you can only fully enjoy if you’ve completely disconnected yourself from society and human contact, as shown in the following chart:

bUoJq8E

As you can see, Lumpy Gravy falls somewhere close to the bottom level, where light no longer actually shines and the sounds of pan-dimensional click-beats can be heard from the wall.  Patrician approved.

It’s worth noting that many of the performers Zappa gathered together for the original recordings thought at first that he was a total chump, just a guitarist from a joke rock band with no real experience composing.  By the end, he won all of them over to his peculiarly cracked genius.

GOLD: 50 Years of Absolutely Free

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The Mothers Of Invention – Absolutely Free

Released May 26th, 1967 on Verve Records

Of the first three Mothers Of Invention albums, Absolutely Free tends to be the forgotten middle child, stuck between the white-hot innovations of Freak Out! and the balls-out satire of We’re Only In It For The Money.  It’s a little more free-wheeling than either (if you want to split hairs) and lacks the conceptual focus that either of it’s flanking albums have.  What Absolutely Free does have, however, is internal cohesion.  It’s an album made up of two mini-suites, with call-backs to themes throughout.  Musically it’s an early Frank Zappa album, meaning that it’s continuously balancing on the edge of free-form jazz, skipping from idea to idea with the impetuousness of the creatively uninhibited.  There are references to Stravinsky and Holst; there are callbacks to previous soundtrack work Zappa had done; there is an admonishment to eat one’s vegetables because they’re good for you.  “America Drinks” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”, the bookend tracks of side two, are tongue-in-cheek references to Zappa’s days playing lounge music; “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” paid homage to President Johnson’s fashion faux pas of the day, matching brown shoes to a grey suit.  The most impressive part of the album is the opening, where Zappa goes fifty years forward in time to find a President Of The United States who can only communicate by bleating the main riff to “Louie Louie” in a cracked, off-key voice.  NATO heads of state can probably relate.

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 2

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Special Friday Edition!

Friday is the day on /r/music where the mods like to turn off the ability to post YouTube videos in the hopes of the subreddit actually becoming one for music discussion and not, say, where Reddit likes to dump it’s garbage fire taste in music.  Ha.  Ha ha.  Well, they try, that’s the important thing.

If you tuned in yesterday, you’ll get the basic gist:  I take a look at the top ten songs posted on /r/music in the last 24 hours and tell you how terrible Reddit’s taste in music is.  In much rarer occasions, I’ll tell you where they get it right.  Fridays will be fun because of the phenomenon mentioned above:  it’s going to be a collection of those songs with the staying power to make it through the discussion posts.

Also, for the record, no I don’t plan on this being an everyday thing, but I would like it to be an everyday I can manage it thing.

Anyway…

June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 3rd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Mr. Bungle – “Air Conditioned Nightmare”

Reddit manages to kick it off with something weird and cool, courtesy of Mike “Weird and Cool” Patton.  Goes through four different changes in tone and structure, each completely different than the one before.  In anyone else’s hands, it would be a gigantic mess, but Mike Patton isn’t anyone else.

A

#2:  Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel The Pain”

Sirius XMU’s favourite Dinosaur, Jr track is also Reddit’s most commonly posted DJ song.  Thankfully it never gets old, although I’ve heard it three times today between the radio and this particular set.  Two good tracks in a row, Reddit, maybe Fridays are your thing.

B+

#3:  Beck – “Wow”

Ah, the new Beck track.  The one that starts off like a generic hip hop beat, or maybe something like what Beyonce might have rejected for her self-titled 2013 album.  Then Beck manages to bull through it in a display of sheer Beck-ness.  Still, it feels a little empty and it’s not until 2/3 of the way through that Beck lets his freak flag fly in even a limited fashion.  Honestly it feels a little like Beck chasing a hit and I’m not sure how I feel about that.  Holding out opinions for the album, we’ll see.

B

#4:  The Cult – “Love Removal Machine”

The Cult were an Eighties goth band that scored some hits when they decided to be an AC/DC tribute band instead.  My mom knew the lead singer in high school at one point, to no one’s surprise he was a dick.  Trust Reddit to go ga-ga for generic hard rock because “it has guitars”.

C

#5:  A Day To Remember – “Bad Vibrations”

Why do metalcore bands have such fucking awful band names?  Why do metalcore bands all recycle the same damn low-end chugging?  Why do metalcore bands mistake sung choruses for depth?  Why do metalcore bands insist on breakdowns that are cheesier than a Wisconsin hamburger?

Anyway, you can always tell when the pre-teens are posting, because there will be metalcore.

F

#6:  The Monkees – “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster”

Okay, show of hands.  Who was crying out for a Monkees comeback?  Anyone?  Put your hand down, dad, Jesus Christ.  Wait, this is actually sort of good.  I…I kind of like this.  Noel Gallagher co-wrote it?  I suppose that explains some things.

B+

#7:  Portugal.  The Man – “Plastic Soldiers”

Who gave the indie kids access to the internet?  They managed to find a Portugal. The Man track that isn’t all that great.  It’s about as middling a work as you can find from a middling also-ran indie act.  You thought you were doing something good, but instead you fucked it all up.  Good work, Reddit.

C+

#8:  Soundgarden – “Rusty Cage”

The rest of the post title literally reads:  “I know this has been posted before, but not for months & I think it’s well worth posting again.” Oh, well, I guess that makes sense except wait IT WAS LITERALLY POSTED YESTERDAY AS THE JOHNNY CASH COVER.

Who are you trying to fool, anyway?  We all know where the inspiration to post this came from.

Decent tune though.

B

#9:  Link Wray – “Rumble”

Link Wray  poked a hole in his speaker cone with a pencil and invented hard rock single-handed.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  Reddit of course knows it from its multiple pop cultural appearances, including Tarantino.  At least it’s better than just posting the songs from Guitar Hero .

B+

#10:  Joywave – “Nice House”

Lyrics are the only really halfway interesting part of this song, the rest is a really generic and straightforward electro-pop song, like what Hot Chip would write if they got really, really boring all of a sudden.  The outro is rather nice though.

C+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  B- (Not bad, Reddit!)

 

Animal Collective – Painting With

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Animal Collective – Painting With

Released February 19th, 2016 on Domino Records

In the 2000s Animal Collective were the experimental pop band, combining lysergic child-like visions with a wide sonic pallete that drew as much from hip hop and electronic music as it did from their sunny 1960s pop forbears.  In the beginning they were inaccessible, the sort of thing that only underground freaks would listen to.  Starting with Feels in 2005 they got onto the radar of the booming internet-driven indie-blog world; 2007’s Strawberry Jam upped the ante but it was 2009’s pop-laden Merriweather Post Pavilion that introduced them to a much wider audience.  Merriweather Post Pavilion ditched the bizarre noise-cycles that were present even two years previous in favour of big pop, sing-along moments made for indie radio, a concept that would only become a concrete thing in the years that followed.  They followed this up with a messy, jittery, hyperkinetic album (Centipede Hz) that divided their fanbase and was nowhere near as well-received as their previous albums.

Painting With, then, becomes the indicator for the direction that the band is going in.  That direction is clearly mainstream pop acceptance at the expense of everything that made the group so vital and alive just ten years ago.  What’s presented on this album is a muted Animal Collective, reliant on using big burbling synth notes, as though they were making either straightforward hip hop or EDM within their existing milieu.  Much of it feels as though they sat down and decided to make an even more accessible Merriweather Post Pavilion, something that would sound great in dorm rooms or stadiums and less so in the bedrooms of the freaks of the nation.  It feels deliberate and mercenary, two things you could never previously accuse the band of being.  Part of it is likely the wider success of Noah Lennox’s Panda Bear project; part of it is likely the sharply divided response to Centipede Hz.  The group took a risk on that album and it didn’t pay off, and so it feels on Painting With that the band has decided never to take such a risk again.  Painting With, then, is the sound of Animal Collective playing it safe, and as such it’s a real downer.

 

Winter Roundup 2016

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Well, after being sick for most of the last two months I find myself behind on a lot of listening.  So here we’ll wrap up all of the albums I’ve listened to in the last two weeks and hopefully we can move on from there.  There may be a second part, there’s still a long list to go after this.

Shearwater – Jet Plane And Oxbow

(01/22/2016 on Sub Pop Records)

Krautrock rhythms and big guitars let the band’s ninth album transcend where they’ve been and point to big promises as to where they’re going.

Rihanna – Anti

(01/28/2016 on Roc Nation)

It’s always fun to watch an established pop artist push herself forwards, even if it’s just in increments.  Plus, making Drake put in work is always a good idea.

Black Tusk – Pillars Of Ash

(01/29/2016 on Relapse Records)

THERE’S NOTHING HERE THAT HASN’T BEEN DONE!  IT’S JUST HARDCORE WITH SOME SLUDGE AND DEATH FLOURISHES!  PLUS THE VOCALIST KEEPS SHOUTING! SHOUTING! SHOUTING! I SWEAR BIOHAZARD WAS MORE ENTERTAINING! SHOUTING!

Kevin Gates – Islah

(01/29/2016 on Atlantic Records)

Bizarrely good, like a steak sandwich prepared in the back of a grimy diner whose walls are dripping with sludge.  Kevin Gates is a weird guy, a fan-kicker, has lame gun tats on his hands, and doesn’t believe in vaccinations.  Still, Islah overflows with hypnotic flow and oddly great hooks – “Hard For” being the most out-there of them all.

Milk Teeth – Vile Child

(01/29/2016 on Hopeless Records)

Derivative as hell, it still works when the female vocalist comes on and the band approximates the sort of 90s hard rock that Speedy Ortiz has been repackaging.  Then when the guy comes on and tries his hand at Husker Du it all falls apart.

Dream Theater –  The Astonishing

(01/29/2016 on Roadrunner Records)

There are days that I swear the word “pretentious” was invented to describe Dream Theater.

Cross Record – Wabi Sabi

(01/29/2016 on Ba Da Bing Records)

Art rock that walks a fine line between gorgeously dreamy and blackly despairing, Wabi Sabi is a record that soaks up dream pop and New Wave influences in equal measure.

Bloc Party – Hymns

(01/29/2016 on BMG Records)

So many of the most hyped-up bands from the early 00s became the poster children for the concept of diminishing returns.  Interpol, The Killers, The Strokes, and of course Bloc Party.  Hymns is the nadir of Bloc Party’s career, an utterly boring collection of electro-washed power balladry that requires serious endurance to make it through.

Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning

(02/05/2016 on Fire Records)

A live re-recording of older songs, No More Lamps In The Morning brings out the sheer power in Foster’s songs.  The first comparison will always be Joni Mitchell, but like Joanna Newsom there’s something deeper and older at work here, something that crackles with early radio signals and speaks of cleaner air and bygone days.

Junior Boys – Big Black Coat

(02/05/2016 on City Slang Records)

Sleek electronic songs that are more subdued than some of their contemporaries but are also more subtle, and more affecting.

Nonkeen – The Gamble

(02/05/2016 on R & S Records)

Complicated and wild, bouncing from solemn, rainy-day contemplation to the sort of drum-led freakouts that made Starless And Bible Black such a treat.  Call it electro-prog if you have to call it something.

Pinegrove – Cardinal

(02/12/2016 on Run For Cover Records)

New Jersey has grown its own peculiar brand of punk rock over the past decade, one where howling black-hearted hardcore stands shoulder to shoulder with reedy folk-country Americana.  Pinegrove is a key example of this sound, combining youthful energy and a folk-punk yelp with a more studied and mature rootsy depth.

Radiation City – Synesthetica

(02/12/2016 on Polyvinyl Records)

Reverb-laden dream pop with Eighties influences that doesn’t manage to do, well, much of anything.

Ra Ra Riot – Need Your Light

(02/19/2016 on Barsuk Records)

After a regrettable detour into electronic music, Ra Ra Riot has returned with the sort of brightly coloured, anthemic pop rock they were best known for.  It all goes downhill from the first song but “Water” is such a great song that you’d hardly notice.

Brood Ma – Daze

(02/19/2016 on Tri Angle Records)

An electronic record that is rooted more in disquieting industrial-tinged dread-making than it is in creating dancefloor bliss.  An amalgamation of dark vision and darker sounds.

Wolfmother – Victorious

(02/19/2016 on Universal Records)

When they stick to the rote Sabbath worship my fist can at least pump into the air.  When they delve into messy balladry that smells of cheese and bad Uriah Heep, however, I’m left feeling limp.

Matmos – Ultimate Care II

(02/19/2016 on Thrill Jockey Records)

If you’ve ever wanted to hear a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine used as the main instrument on an album, look no further.

Field Music – Commontime

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Field Music – Commontime

Released February 5th, 2016 on Memphis Industries Records

The sixth album from English prog group Field Music brings it all back to the septic days of the early 1980s, when pop music was the domain of a heady mixture of Bowiesque art-rock, Talking Heads-style white boy funk, the dregs of Seventies R&B, and the ghost of the more majestic moments of the Beatles.  Commontime is all of these things, but more importantly it’s shot through with the spirit of one of the best and most criminally overlooked groups of that era:  XTC.  That quirky sense of jerky melody that Andy Partridge brought to his best compositions is present throughout Commontime, to the point where the whole thing seems like a sort of homage to Drums and Wires.  That’s perfectly fine with me, since I often feel like Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright was the worst thing to happen to music in the early Eighties, but it does make the exercise feel somewhat derivative at times.  Field Music prior to Commontime were more interested in fragmented songcraft and experimentation with pop-rock forms; Commontime keeps the sense of experimentation but filters it through that XTC viewpoint.  The album then becomes a balance – it’s a great amount of fun, but only if you can ignore where that nagging sense of familiarity comes from.

Ulver -ATGCLVLSSCAP

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Ulver – ATGCLVLSSCAP

Released January 22nd, 2016 on House of Mythology

The Norwegian black metal band turned art-house experimental collective Ulver has gone even more out-there for their twelfth album.  Bored of the usual way in which they made albums, they embarked on an experimental series of live concerts that they branded “free rock”, in which they got up on various stages throughout Europe and jammed on whatever motifs came into their heads that night.  These live recordings were then culled and cut into shape by the band, further enhanced with noise and, on “Moody Stix”, samples of their older work.  The outcome is the ultimate ambient jam, not so much a collection of songs as a roadmap of their trip through Europe and the noise that came into their heads on any given night.  There is a freeing quality to the recordings that is remarkably free of the sort of formality one comes to expect from studio jams; the off-the-cuff nature makes for a series of aural hallucinations that move in and out of grooves as the group chooses.  “Cromagnosis” and “Om Hanumate Namah” are the best examples of the trance-like groove state the band would find themselves in, although the lysergic ambiance of “England’s Hidden” and “The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible” evoke the same feeling without locking themselves into an outright beat.

Forget Explosions In The Sky:  ATGCLVLSSCAP is post-rock, in that it clears the space of anchors like structure and studio formality and sets the stage for something potentially new and exciting.

(And if you’re wondering, the title is an acronym referencing the twelve signs of the zodiac).

Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

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Tyler, The Creator – Cherry Bomb

In the run-up to his new album, Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator promised everyone a new Tyler, one who was more mature and willing to go forward.  This was by and large greeted with muted enthusiasm, since the OF schtick has worn a bit thin in the years since the world picked up on Bastard.  Bastard was fresh and exciting; Goblin dropped off after a couple of listens: the best that could be said for Wolf was that it was hit-and-miss.  With Cherry Bomb Tyler had the opportunity to step forward and take his game to the next level.

Sometimes he does that, but a lot of the time he doesn’t.

“DEATHCAMP”, the opening track to both Cherry Bomb and Tyler’s chaotic Coachella set, is a great kick-off.  The N.E.R.D. vibe that he nicks here is no accident; in the middle of his second verse he raps “In Search Of… did more for me than Illmatic“.  It’s a line that marks a clear divide between him and the old guard of hip hop, and it reminds me of an uncomfortable conversation I had not long ago where I discovered that there was, in fact, such a thing as dad rap.  Then “BUFFALO” comes on and it’s about as perfect a Tyler track as you can get.  After that, though…

As it turns out, Tyler’s take on maturity is that it involves R&B tracks with some off-kilter melodies.  “FIND YOUR WINGS” is where he tries this and fails; “FUCKING YOUNG/PERFECT” is where he manages to pull it off.  The noise that makes “DEATHCAMP” so much fun is taken to its extreme on “CHERRY BOMB”, which sounds like nothing so much as an early Wavves track, from back when he thought that heavy clipping made tracks sound cooler.  As an artistic statement I think that “CHERRY BOMB” succeeds, but taken into context with the rest of the album it highlights the biggest problem:  everything here feels completely unfinished.  God knows no one was rushing Tyler to complete the album; either he felt he needed to compete with Earl Sweatshirt or he actually thought that a badly mixed, unmastered album made for good hip hop.

The other problem, of course, are the lyrics.  We were promised maturity, and what did we get?  Liberal use of the word “faggot” despite the slow-crawl backlash he’s received against it, and cringe-fests like “Blow My Load”, which finds him writing lyrics like he’s still 16.  In a way, he is.  He’s still that kid from the promo shot of Pitchfork’s “/b/ Generation” article, flashing his dick to the photographer with his friends around him.  Earl has started the path to being a grown-ass man – a bitter one, to be sure – but Tyler is still running around like it’s 2010 and Odd Future is still the Next Big Thing.  I mean, sure, he managed to get both Kanye and Lil’ Wayne on “SMUCKERS”, but who still takes the guy seriously at this point?  Far from being OF’s breakout star, he’s seen his star eclipsed by both Earl and Frank Ocean, and he’s not doing anything to try to change that.

Everyone knows that when you hit the drinking age in America, it’s time to leave /b/ for better forums.  Everyone except Tyler, anyway.

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Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds

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Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds

Dan Mangan is a Vancouver songwriter who until now made his name on jaunty folk music influenced equally by the Beatles and the Prince of Doomed Troubadours himself, Nick Drake.  His fourth album – and the first using the name “+ Blacksmith” ups the ante on maturity, remaking him into a sort of adult ambient experimental folk singer, like what would happen if Grizzly Bear stripped down and stretched things out into a drone.  It’s all very serious and intense, playing with purpose and intent, but its 45-minute runtime means that “serious and intense” is coded language for “kind of boring”.  It’s the same sort of instrumental build-up on every track, and the releases that are given aren’t always a just reward for listening.  In some places – notably on the admittedly great one-two punch of “Offred” and “Vessel” – it works well, achieving an emotional resonance, but on too much of the album (especially the Radiohead-biting “A Doll’s House/Pavlovia”) it devolves into humdrum banality.