Ruby: 40 Years of Trans-Europa Express

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Kraftwerk – Trans-Europa Express

Released March, 1977 on Kling Klang Records

BestEverAlbums: #262

RYM: #172

A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right.  Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged.  The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.

 

In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War.  The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933.  The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country:  railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn.  That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole.  The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe.  “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.

 

The first half of the album takes a different path.  Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia.  The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.”  The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows).  The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.

 

While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music.  The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place.  Go ahead and say it:  Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.

 

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!)

 

Critiquing Reddit’s Taste, Part 1

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And now for a new sequence, brought to you by the…ahem…”tastemakers” of Reddit’s infamously awful /r/music community.

It’s often said that Reddit has shitty taste in music.  Granted it’s usually 4chan’s /mu/ community saying that, but let’s be serious here.  Whether it’s the constant love of Queen and Foo Fighters that makes me roll my eyes or the circlejerking over how superior they are because of their love of Tool, /r/music is a bottomfeeder in terms of music communities.

Or is it?  I’ve decided to start an ongoing series where I listen to the top ten songs posted to /r/music in a 24 hour period and assign them completely subjective ratings based on my own insane whims and thought processes.  Then we’ll see if /r/music’s taste actually sucks as badly as I’ve always thought.

Without further ado, I give to you:

June 1st, 2016 (12:30 PM) to June 2nd, 2016 (12:30 PM)

#1:  Rancid – “Ruby Soho”

The most poppy and milquetoast of all of the Clash-rip-off’s poppy and milquetoast songs.  /r/music loves punk rock, but only if it’s from Le Nineties and it’s been beaten to death on the radio since then.

 D+

#2:  The Avalanches – “Frankie Sinatra”

The first time since 2001 that Australian sample-stackers The Avalanches release new music AND it’s fucking stellar?  You win this time Reddit.  You win this time.

A+

#3:  Dethklok – “I Ejaculate Fire”

I’d say something snarky about how the only way metal gets to the top of Reddit is in cartoon form but I can’t hate on Dethklok.  This isn’t completely dildos.

B+

#4:  Johnny Cash – “Rusty Cage”

The best that can be said of this is that at least Reddit took a break from jerking off over “Hurt”.  At least with “Rusty Cage” I don’t have to read about how “REZNOR TOTALLY SAID THAT SONG BELONGED TO JOHNNY CASH NOW BECAUSE THE COVER WAS SO MUCH BETTER!!1!11!”.  In fact, one of the top comments is the exact opposite.  Thank you, Jesus.

C+

#5:  The Distillers – “The Young Crazed Peeling”

Man it has been a long time since I thought of Brody and The Distillers.  It still sounds like Courtney Love fronting Rancid to me, and as the years have gone by that prospect appeals to me exponentially less.  Also, those fucking spikes.  Jesus Brody, how much money did you shell out to get that look down just right?  How punk rock of you.

C-

#6:  Huey Lewis And The News – “If This Is It”

Jesus Christ Reddit, Bret Easton Ellis was being ironic.  What the hell is wrong with you?

F

#7:  Lagwagon – “Island Of Shame”

Apparently it’s awful pop punk day on Reddit.  Lagwagon was that band that was there for you if Pennywise was too edgy for you.  Completely indistinguishable from anything else on Epitaph in the mid-90s.

D

#8:  Grand Funk Railroad – “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”

GFR got a lot of hate back in the day from critics because, well, they’re not really that good on average.  Still, they were capable of moments of brilliance, and “I’m Your Captain” is one of those.  For more on Grand Funk Railroad, consult your local library.

A-

#9:  Men At Work – “Down Under”

Goofy Eighties pop rock from the Gowan of Australia.  I often wonder who posts these sorts of songs.  Kids nostalgic for a time they never had to live through?  Adults putting on rose-coloured nostalgia glasses?  Mouthbreathers who listen to bland Mix FM stations at work?  At least in dying you don’t have to deal with New Wave for a second time.

C-

#10:  The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu (aka The KLF) – “It’s Grim Up North”

Reddit’s sizeable school shooter community comes through in the clutch.

B+

TODAY’S AVERAGE:  C+

School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB

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School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB

Released February 26th, 2016 on Vagrant Records

School Of Seven Bells were never one of the bands pushed by indie radio that really ever appealed to me.  They came off as the nadir of the cross-pollination of shoegaze and dream pop, an amalgamation of the worst parts of both that hung around like the miasma of a bad dream for just long enough to get obnoxious.  I didn’t expect much when I sat down with SVIIB, their fourth (and now final) album.

As it turns out, it’s leaps and bounds beyond their earlier material, a record that takes in the best moments of Eighties alt-pop while still remaining aloof and individual.  It’s slick, but dreamy; the drums hit hard but the melodies remain slippery.  It seems like a celebration and in a way it is.  During the process of recording (in 2013), one half of the duo, Benjamin Curtis, passed away from lymphoma.  Alejandra Dehaza took what they had, polished it up with some help, and released this one last School Of Seven Bells album.  I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had just walked away from the project after her creative partner died, but the fact that she stuck to it and released such a stellar final album is a bit inspiring in its own way.  It’s a hell of a way to go out, and at the very least it leaves me with fond memories of a group that I previously had no such memories of.

 And the rest…

Cavern of Anti-Matter

Void Beats/Invocation Trex

02/19/2016 on Duophonic Records

Electronic music may be a big festival draw now but it’s origins lie in open synth work layered over Krautrock-inspired motorik beats.  Cavern of Anti-Matter take their chosen genre back to its retro moment, conjuring up images of later Kraftwerk or E2-E4.

Wild Nothing

Life Of Pause

02/19/2016 on Bella Union Records

As usual, Wild Nothing’s latest record conjures up a daydream of the Eighties, a snatch of John Hughes remembered at the moment of death.  Like most Wild Nothings records, the single is the best part, but there are some real moments of strength and revelation found throughout.

Africaine 808 

Basar

02/19/2016 on Golf Channel Records

A seamless blend of West African heart, German efficiency, and the classic thump of the Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Harder to pin down than your average hip hop record, and a good sight more freeing.

Steve Mason

Meet The Humans

02/26/2016 on Domino Records

Overly sensitive without being eye-rollingly weepy, Meet The Humans dances all over the pop-rock map in search of Mason’s heart, and hits far more often than it misses.

 Emma Pollock

In Search Of Harperfield

02/26/2016 on Chemikal Underground Records

Country-folkie with a nice enough turn of phrase and a decent sense of navigation around a plaintive melody, still not much to really write home about.  A record you can take home to mama, but not a record you can really take out and party with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

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NZCA Lines – Infinite Summer

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Memphis Industries

Some have opined recently – in forums, at any rate – that the concept album is dead.  This rather bizarre pronouncement is typically preceded by a question, something along the lines of “What was the last concept album you heard?” and expounded upon by a legion of adolescent rockists talking about The Wall, and why no one makes albums like The Wall anymore, and about how this is somehow indicative of the general death of music at the hands of those awful soulless pop stars.

The problem here is that every one of these people expects their concept albums to sound exactly like The Wall: dreary, overly grandiose, weighted down with its Very Important Conceptualizations and dripping with self-indulgent notions of Art, notions that are seemingly inextricably tied with bluesy guitar solos and radio singles.  Thus, when an album like The Monitor, or Hospice, or good kid m.A.A.d. city comes along, their status as being a “concept album” is dismissed in these circles as they’re “too noisy”, or “too indie”, or “hip hop”.  The kids wearing t-shirts of their parent’s generation will never accept them because they didn’t live through the 1970s or they’re not beaten to death by Rolling Stone.

Infinite Summer is another one of those albums.  Michael Lovett, along with Ash guitarist Charlotte Hatherley and Sarah Jones of Hot Chip, has put together a science fiction story that has a lot in common with the sort of mystical concepts prog bands used to drown their albums in during the latter half of the 1970s.  The sun has grown to the size of a red giant, and the destruction of the world is imminent.  Half of the world, a sweltering urban jungle, has decided to give up and embrace the destruction; the other half believes that there’s still something worth fighting for and wants to figure out how to rebuild civilization into something lasting.  In true Matrix-style fashion, both sides have time to throw a gigantic rave.

The dismissal invariably occurs here because of the fact that this is a concept album built around synths, processed guitars, smooth vocals, and the legacy of Daft Punk.  It’s a relentlessly moving Europop-style album, and its disco bona fides mean it’ll never be accepted by the rockists as being a “true” concept album.  Granted, the idea kind of falls apart when everyone starts dancing despite the impending doom of the human species, but at the same time it works, given that it seems like the sort of thing the human race would do in it’s hour of destruction.  The tracks also get a bit same-y for something so conceptual, but there’s always something you can hang your hat on for the next listen, so each spin of the record brings you deeper into its folds.  That there are a lot folds here is testament to the trio creating it; it’s at once sweaty, romantic, and stylishly aloof, and in the place where these three meet is a great big heart beating for all of us.

Not every concept album needs to sound like The Wall, and Infinite Summer is infinite proof as to why.

Chairlift – Moth

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Chairlift – Moth

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Columbia Records

Singles:

Ch-Ching

Romeo

Something, Chairlift’s second album, was a pretty solid record and a lot of fun.  On the strength of singles like “Sidewalk Safari”, “I Belong In Your Arms”, and the purely Eighties-biting “Amanaemonesia”, it got by on charisma and peppy synth work.  That was four years ago.  Since then, the world has become somehow even more inundated with bold, peppy synth pop.  CHVRCHES happened, and then happened again.  Chillwave pillars like Washed Out and Neon Indian became akin to cliches.  So when Moth was released today, it came out into a sea of similar albums by similar bands.

To it’s credit, the front half is loaded with good songs, from the agitated funk of “Polymorphing” to the twin-barrel singles “Romeo” and “Ch-Ching”.  Then “Crying In Public” happens and you’re left feeling uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed, which I suppose brings out the idea behind the song but also makes you wonder why this lazily histrionic ballad wasn’t left in the 1987-marked bin it was discovered in.  The back half is yawning mediocrity except for “Show U Off”, which rediscovers the fun of the first four songs.  Then it ends on “No Such Thing As Illusion” and I’m trying and failing to come up with a reason to feel any sort of way about it; ambient balladry only works if there’s something to hang onto, and the walls of that song are smooth and blank.

Moth is one of those very common albums in popular music:  you’ll find yourself singing along to the singles on the radio even while the album itself gathers dust.

CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

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CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye

Scotland’s CHVRCHES blew up the scene in 2013 with a debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe, that was the best synth pop album since Violator.  It’s hard to follow up that kind of a meteoric album; you would need a synth pop masterpiece, or, more likely, a pop masterpeice.  Every Open Eye is not that album, but then again what could be?

It is a really well-crafted album, though.  The three opening tracks – “Never Ending Circles”, “Leave A Trace”, and the sublime “Keep You On My Side” – are CHVRCHES firing on all pistons, songs that take the groundwork laid on the debut and building more complex, darker structures from them.  Then it falls off, with only “Clearest Blue” and “Playing Dead” really standing apart from the more mundane pieces that surround them.  Even those mundane pieces, however, are great examples of good pop music, and Lauren Mayberry presents herself as the perfect pop frontwoman, taking charge in the choruses but letting the synth and drum work speak for itself when appropriate.

Every Open Eye suffers from having such a barn-burner as The Bones Of What You Believe as its predecessor.  If this were CHVRCHES’ debut, it would seem freer, more expansive; it would be a solid rocket and a reason to expect greater things.  Since we’ve already seen those greater things, this album becomes a placeholder of sorts; we know they’re capable of greater things, so now we have this sophomore album to tide us over until they (presumably) blow all of our minds with their instant classic third album.

Purity Ring – another eternity

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Purity Ring – another eternity

“stranger than earth”, the fourth song on the Calgary synth-pop band’s sophomore album, is a trap song, an EDM song, and a 90s-tinged electronic club ballad, all at the same time.  In the quest to figure out which cutting-edge, contemporary pop trope to incorporate, it chooses to go in every direction at once.  Its big-synth heroics conjure up latter-day Metric, and this is a big, big problem.

Like Metric, Purity Ring staked their initial claim on layering melted-butter vocals over a fresh take on the sounds of the day.  Where Metric rode in on a wave of sunny, troubled indie rock in the wake of Broken Social Scene, Purity Ring chose to pair Megan James’ ethereal voice to an electronic soundscape that bore more than a few resemblances to witch house, a meme-genre the internet had a brief fascination with in 2010-2011.  The songs were a bit twisted, oddly barbed; they sounded like the jagged edges of a broken dream where everything seemed normal but you were left feeling faintly disturbed.

Like Metric, Purity Ring have made a fumbling grasp for a more widescreen acceptance.  Metric followed the gigantic-sounding Fantasies with the boring synth-pop rigidity of Synthetica.  Purity Ring follows Shrines with its opposite as well; the debut album’s danger and disturbing dream pop are replaced with a much safer, more straightforward pop.  Pop, full stop:  this is an album of modern hip hop, Avicii, David Guetta, and sub-indie balladry.  This is not a band that ever took cues from Salem, or oOoOO.  It takes no chances, and increases opportunity for market penetration.

I cast some aspersions on Imagine Dragons’ take on modern arena rock recently and the same goes for Purity Ring.  It’s reaching to rock as many people’s faces off at once as it can, and every song feels like a forced moment.  “push pull” comes the closest to their old sound, with its waterfall of arpeggiated synth notes tripping over themselves; everything else could be interchangeable on some indie rock radio DJ’s Saturday night club playlist.  Everything is still on the verge of drowning under hazy reverb, but it feels contrived this time out and causes the tracks to simply feel not loud enough for the desired effect.  Megan James can still sing like a stoned angel, of course, but Corin Roddick’s production is both pandering and lackluster.

Don’t even get me started on the conceit of stylizing everything in lowercase.

Young Galaxy – “Ultramarine”

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We’ve been living through an Eighties-indebted synth pop revival for, what, nearly five years now?  There’s a lot of music from that wild, coked-up, experimental decade to mine for inspiration, but for some bands the inspiration is beginning to stretch a bit thin.  Case in point, Young Galaxy:  here we have a band with a great vocalist and a good sense of that gently exploratory, somewhat numb vibe, but they ultimately can’t think of anything new to do with it.  Ultramarine goes over the same pop-structure safety that countless other bands have already done, with nothing new to add into the mix.  So why bother?  It’s nice enough if you’re in a synth pop mood and want to make your playlist as big as possible, or if you’re putting together a hip chillwave night, but otherwise there’s very little to recommend itself here.  Ultimately ho-hum stuff.
 
Verdict:

AVERAGE