Classic Album of the Week: The Beatles-The Beatles (1968)

It kind of makes sense that The Beatles were being ripped apart at the seams during the recording process for the white album.  At 30 tracks and over 90 minutes—not even to mention the impressively eclectic collection of stylistic references—the album is clunky as all hell.

Tackling topics from the very serious to monkeys and pigs, it’s not an album that tackles a singular mood or emotion, but it proves just how potent the illustrious quartet of songwriters could be no matter what sound they were looking for.

You can still hear the rawness in the work almost 50 years later.  Yes, with No Wave on your mind, “Helter Skelter” sounds FCC approved as anything has ever been, but in the context of the album, the band takes a huge jump from the clean, backing-trio vocal harmonies of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” to those screeches of saxophone—the work alone goes to show the change the group would inspire in the ensuing decades of rock.

The band also set the tone for the folkisms/popisms/free jazzisms/bluesism that would dominate rock history to this day.  Again, yes “Yer Blues” might sound like it came from a group a bit out of their element next to Buddy Guy, but the way The Beatles placed pieces of other traditions through their own aesthetic lens would certainly inspire the incorporation of all kinds of ideas into the umbrella of rock for years.

To this day, the album is both easy and difficult to write about.  Give me a word count and I can fill it up with points about interesting parts of the album, but no amount of words can fully capture the essence of the work and I don’t that will ever change.

“Revolution”

 “Blackbird”

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

 “Happiness is a Warm Gun”

 “Birthday”

 “Helter Skelter”

“Julia”

“Back in the USSR”

“Dear Prudence”

How did all of these come off the same album. seriously.

-Donovan Burtan

On the Monthly: April 2016

lol at this post, here’s 6 albums that I rated highly in somewhat of a linear fashion.

Valeda-Unearth

“On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.”

Full Review

Jay Som-Everybody Works

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Matthew Shipp, Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri-Vessel in Orbit

“From beginning to end, the album pulses with life.  These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times.  Dickey is a painter at the drums.  He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard.  “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track.  Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.”

Full Review

Kendrick Lamar-DAMN.

“Damn isn’t a concept album, it isn’t a huge, sweeping narrative, and, truthfully, it isn’t packed with as much depth and nuance as To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City.  However, it features the best rapper of the current moment doing exactly what he needed to after an 80-minute cinematic ploy.  Damn features Kendrick contemplating his position and humility, it features his right-of-passage radio hit with Rihanna, and it features him plain old rapping his ass off.  It doesn’t feature the hyper-organization of To Pimp a Butterfly, nor does it feature the linear story telling of Good Kid, but what Kendrick has done is he’s just exploded all his usual forms and simply delivered song after song with incredible production, mind-blowing beat changes, and catchy hooks.”

Full Review

Slowdive-Slowdive

“All too often, comeback albums are a product of some combination of a popular middle-aged band needing retirement funds, labels at a loss for sales with young folks, and the human condition’s constant desperation for the past.  The formerly critically-shunned shoegazers missed all of that.”

Full Review

Mount Eerie-A Crow Looked at Me

A Crow Looked at Me is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016.  Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity.  It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.”

Full Review

Jaimie Branch-Fly or Die: Album Review

Jaimie Branch’s debut is a longtime coming.  Having grown up in the heart of Chicago’s music scene and relocated to New York City, she’s had a role in improvising, hip-hop, and indie rock scenes for years and she’s also worked as a sound person, enjoying punk and underground aesthetics of all creeds—in interviews, she’ll mention everyone from Sun Ra to Matana Roberts to Show Me the Body.

“Fly or Die” didn’t come together in a conventional manner and it owes a little bit to each of the traditions that Branch has experienced over the years.  The record seamlessly incorporates post-production guitar ramblings, live set interpolations, and dubbed over trumpet trios without losing the sense of a single paint stroke.

Themes 1, 2, and “Theme Nothing” operate as major focal points.  After a 15 second snack of trumpet distortion, Chad Taylor, Tomeka Reid, and Jason Ajemian combine forces to set the tone with a driving minor groove. Reid and Ajemian’s chemistry is immediate, as they trade off little pieces of bass line over Taylor’s melodic approach to the kit. Branch enters with an ascending line with a lot of room for reinterpretation, leading to a lot of interchange between her and Taylor.

One recurring theme on the record seems to be abstracting distinctions between solo and ensemble, written melody and improvised and this track immediately touches upon that. Branch leads the charge into the back end of the track, which eventually dissolves into a dramatic landscape aided by longing, bowed string melodies and some acoustic guitar ramblings from “guest artist” Matt Schneider.  “Meanwhile” then focusses in on Schneider, with Taylor eventually building back the energy for his final fill into “Theme 2.”  Although set-up a bit differently, the process somewhat repeats here with another fun, driving groove that gradually falls off into obscurity.

“Theme 2’s” end finds another important skill of Branch.  As I’ve said, the album is highly varied, but still feels like one paint stroke and part of that comes from the gradual introduction of the next melody at the end of the previous tune—a tactic that comes up all over the project.  Here, Reid and Ajemian paint a hectic backdrop and, as the dust settles, Branch introduces the balladic melody for the next track.

This first utterance of the “Leaves of Glass” melody gives off the impression of a ballad and the track initially has a sense of cleanliness to combat the violent end of “Theme 2,” but nothing is as it seems on a Jaimie Branch record and as the phrase repeats itself, the added trumpet parts lead the overall mood into another dystopian noise ploy.  It’s frankly amazing that Branch is able to move through these moods with such ease and her melodic knack helps ground each splash of emotion.

“The Storm” continues the noisiness and showcases one of the best examples of Branch’s use of recording technology.  After the “nose dives,” as Jaimie calls them, where each member of the band descends through the whole range of their instrument, a trumpet player spits out a bunch of biting, be-bop oriented lines.  This trumpet player is actually guest artist Ben Lamar Gay and Branch is making all of the static radio noise with extended techniques right up against the microphone.  This song is also taken from a live performance.

Had Branch not told me these details, I might not have even noticed–It really says a lot about a composer if their musical stamp is so ingrained in the work that even when they hand off the spotlight to another player on the same instrument, their personality reigns true.  After this tune, “Waltzer” dedicates itself a bit more to the notion of a ballad and “Theme Nothing” delivers another pulverizing groove to finish of the project.

As a whole, this record could appeal to a lot of music heads out there. There’s instances of blissful groove, but they get balanced out by distorted messes.  The production of the project is also impeccable and almost lends itself to the studio ideas of lo-fi folk movements from the late 90s by cutting and pasting all sorts of different ideas into one flowing collage of sound. Branch sounds poised as just about any other band leader out there right now and this album is a testament to her undying creativity and successfully carves out an exciting, unique position in the contemporary instrumental music realm.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

Slowdive-Slowdive: Album Review

The story behind Slowdive’s comeback album is a bit too perfect.  All too often, comeback albums are a product of some combination of a popular middle-aged band needing retirement funds, labels at a loss for sales with young folks, and the human condition’s constant desperation for the past.  The formerly critically-shunned shoegazers missed all of that.

Slowdive didn’t receive some big check to write these songs—they didn’t even think about record labels until the album was finished.  Also, the way they were jerked in and out of fame in their short six-year career didn’t have them thinking too nostalgically.  Throw in Beach House’s Chris Cody on the mixing stage and you’ve got an album that’s easy to write about.

Still, all these factors are truly audible.  The band’s freshness is remarkable, perhaps a product of the Beach House interplay. This is not a group reaching backwards, it’s an honest crew of songwriters doing what they’ve always done.  It’s a logical move from Pygmalion, pushing all of that sonic exploration at a bit of a faster clip, with some slightly more digestible lyrics.  Like My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 offering, it’s a testament to the importance of Shoegaze and it achieves that distinction by simply delivering honest material from beginning to end.

“Star Roving” makes a great single that shows the warmer side of the project.  It thrives on a single guitar lick that punches like all hell with classic Slowdive vocal delivery and a typically rich sonic pool surrounding it all.  Neil and Rachel’s chemistry is as good as ever as lyrics effortlessly nail young love: “Smiling beautiful/She says I make it best/For everyone to hide/Twisting around my girl/Nothing left to lose.”  The song takes a moment to breathe with “oohs” between phrases and every time that guitar revamps, the goosebumps return.

The band emulates this warmth elsewhere, such as the instrumentally driven jam “Go Get it.”  A guitar opens with a spilling delay effect on the simple, descending melody.  The rather giant snare sound helps drive things as the chorus roars “I WANNA FEEL IT.”  This song also brings the group’s lyrical talents into play.  Each song doesn’t so much hand the listener a slew of lyrics or an idea or narrative, rather the group’s words fall in and out of importance with phrases only used at just the right moment to enhance the sonic effect.

“Everyone Knows” presents the most obvious lyrical distortion as the words fall entirely secondary to the strumming acoustic guitar and driving mass of sound.  “Don’t Know Why” also uses lyrics a bit differently by abstracting some specific words, but here you get the gist of the mood and the words later become a bit more metaphorically delivered.

Rachel articulates the part of a break-up when you just don’t want to hear from your former partner: “Put it all behind you/Put it in a song/I don’t want to know about it.”  The lines spill over each other and gradually it all melds together like a frantic collection of thoughts.  The abstraction of words is just as important as the abstraction of typical guitar roles in shoegaze and the group epitomizes it on this record that achieves emotional impact with sparse ideas and turns of phrase.

The second single, “Sugar for the Pill” shows the album’s cooler side.  Admittedly, as a stand-alone track, the song comes across as extremely clean and straightforward, but it makes more sense in the middle of the album as it’s bookended by two instances of heavy lyrical abstraction.  Neil paints pictures with his words: “There’s a buzzard of gulls/They’re drumming in the wind/Only lovers alive/Running in the dark.” It’s cool and detached and expresses a certain darkness of moving on from something that once was.

The album ends in a similarly cool place with “Falling Ashes.”  Piano shows up out of nowhere and remains brooding throughout.  Lyrics seem to reference their former selves with words about being lost with the prospect of being pulled back to happiness: “thinking about love.”  It caps off the work nicely by not trying too hard to find blissful stability and instead continuing to face their demons.

As far as the future goes, the band might not have a huge amount of impactful material left in them and perhaps Pygmalion and Souvlaki will remain their most significant works, but their self-titled album shows a highly relevant and important group living up to their songwriting legacy.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Lauren Lee Interview

This week’s podcast is pulled from another episode of CKUT’s New Shit.  I speak to Lauren Lee about her Space Jazz Trio and their upcoming Montreal show at Cafe Resonance on May 20th.  Topics include songwriting strategies, influences, and some thoughts on the New York and Montreal jazz communities.

Click Here to Download

Playlist:

Kara-Lis Coverdale- “Grafts” from Grafts

Lauren Lee Space Jazz Trio- “Voyager” from The Consciousness Test

Jessica Moss- “Entire Populations Pt. 2” from Pools of Light

Erik Hove- “Fractured” from Polygon

 

Mount Eerie-A Crow Looked at Me: Album Review

“A Crow Looked at Me” is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016.  Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity.  It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.

The phrase “death is real” underpins everything said on the work and Elverum specifically vocalizes it a handful of times.  He doesn’t necessarily try to push away the death of his wife, but he still needs to remind himself that this is all real with every turn of events.  In one instance, he speaks about wondering when his wife will be back, but then he remembers “death is real.”  There’s never really a moment of trying to find the best out of the situation or wondering off into some sort of philosophical point—Elverum is devastated and Genvieve is all he can think about.

Religiously, the work doesn’t make any references to specific systems of belief, but Elverum hits the core of what most people think about with death and passing on.  The most obvious example comes after his mention that his house is cold because he refuses to shut the window that he opened so his wife could breathe easier on her dying day.  Besides the obvious difficulty with closing the window and remembering that terrible day, Elverum adds the possibility that something may need to escape the room.  It’s light and quick and again we see how he doesn’t seem to have any answers about his loss.

Obviously, everything is dark, but Elverum also seems to stumble upon facts that give the album particularly impactful, depressing moments.  The opening track talks about a package addressed to his wife that came a week after her death.  It was a backpack, a gift for their daughter, and Elverum mentions that his wife was planning ahead for a future that she would not be involved in.  This again plays into the “death is real” line because even when his wife saw what was going to happen to her, she couldn’t even face it herself.

He later speaks about the counselor his wife and him were seeing and uses this to talk about the passage of time.  As his wife became weaker and weaker, he had to drive closer and closer to the entrance to the building so that she could make it.  Then, at the end of the tale, he mentions that the counselor herself passed right after his wife’s death, “as if her work was done.”  It’s a moment that you really can’t add any words to—it knocks the wind right out of your lungs.

As a whole, what makes the whole work beautiful is the fact that Elverum doesn’t try to do anything with the situation.  As he describes: “[death,] it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art, when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb.”  This is a man speaking about his tragedy, it’s not a man teaching how to do so.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10