and forget about them in a day or two.
How to destroy angels: Welcome oblivion
When I received my digital download of the new How to destroy angels album yesterday and prepared to listen to it, I immediately found myself confused. Despite coming directly from the band, none of the tags included the now infamous underscore that has been somewhat inconsistently included at the end of the band’s name. “I don’t understand” I said, frantically searching the internet for a conclusive answer “Is this band called How to destroy angels, or How to destroy angels_?” I like to imagine this is the same kind of confusion that probably plagued Trent and company while they were creating this project. What exactly is How to destroy angels(_?)? Apparently no one knows.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call Welcome oblivion a mess, it’s kind of unfocused and directionless. It goes back and forth between spending too much time covering old ground and not enough fleshing out a unique, consistent sound. Reznor spends much of the album pulling elements out of the same bag of tricks he’s been using for years: the whispered, mantric chants on “And the sky began to scream” and “We fade away”, the wailing over walls of electronic noise on “Welcome oblivion”… even his ominous psuedo-rapping makes a reappearance on “Too late, all gone”, which sounds like a Year Zero b-side down to the specific sounds that are used. Further exacerbating this trend is Mariqueen, who spends a large portion of the album doing a spot-on stylistic impression of Reznor. While this helps their voices blend on tracks where they sing together, most of her solos left me wondering why Trent didn’t just do the vocals himself when Mariqueen brings nothing unique to the table. The worst part of it is, while all of this would be completely forgivable if Welcome oblivion improved upon these existing NIN tropes, that isn’t really the case here. While most of the songs are quite good and very well put together, a few too many amount to murky filler instrumentals and none of them rise above the older material they emulate. For every step the album takes toward making HTDA something unique one of these formulaic trying-to-be-Nine-Inch-Nails tracks takes it two steps back.
That isn’t to say that those steps forward aren’t taken. In fact they lead to some of the best moments on Welcome oblivion. “Ice age” is without a doubt the strongest song here, from the unique instrumentation to the droning wall of noise which slowly creeps in and envelops the song with a subtlety that isn’t really present elsewhere. It’s also one of the few songs that works for Mariqueen. She’s not a particularly evocative or expressive singer, but here her soft, pretty listlessness works to the song’s advantage. Listening to “Ice age”, I often find myself thinking that Trent couldn’t pull it off the way Mariqueen does, which is the entire point of having her on lead vocals instead of Trent. Other tracks like “Keep it together”, “How long?” and “On the wing” also have the same stylistic uniqueness that was teased with the first How to Destroy Angels EP and the beautiful ”Is Your Love Strong Enough?” from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While they may not all be the strongest in terms of composition, they’re a breath of fresh air simply on the merits of being something new.
Overall, Welcome oblivion is a good but somewhat forgettable album. The few new surprises it does offer make me excited for the future of HTDA but most of it just makes me nostalgic for the albums that did the same things better the first time around. It’s an album that makes me think more about where the band could go from here rather than where they are now. I guess it ultimately boils down to which road Trent decides to take with this project: recursion, or self-improvement?
Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi: Rome
Brian Burton is no stranger to the music of the spaghetti western. The genre has long influenced some of his best work, including the hit song Crazy, which contains elements from Last Man Standing, a song from Django, Prepare a Coffin. After deriving so much from it, both in sampling and style, it seems fitting that Burton might want to contribute something of his own. His latest project, a collaboration with composer Daniele Luppi, sets out to do just that.
Burton has gone to some pretty impressive lengths to ensure the authenticity of the music he’s producing. The album was not only performed using vintage instruments, but was even recorded on older equipment at a studio in (where else?) Rome. In addition, Burton has managed to reunite several musicians that worked on some of the classic spaghetti western scores, including the members of Cantori Moderni, the choir that contributed to the music of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Although his efforts to use the original musicians may seem a bit unnecessary, their presence really makes an impact on the album. All of the techniques and stylistic choices that defined the music are there, presented by the ones who introduced them in the first place. In combination with Burton’s masterful production, the instrumental sections of the album feel like they could have come out of a time capsule. Still, as committed as he is to an authentic sound, Burton’s always been one to combine the old and the new, and what really makes the album interesting is the vocal and lyrical contributions of Jack White and Norah Jones.
Foregoing the usual title of featured artist, the two “star” in the album, as if portraying characters in the film Burton’s music is complimenting. White is the nameless wanderer. Musically, he seems to blend in effortlessly with the western theme, with his rough voice and lonely heart. His lyrics are even tailored to fit the genre, giving him a gritty edge that suites him perfectly. Jones on the other hand, adds a different touch to her songs. Her sultry voice compliments Burton’s production beautifully, but also manages to bridge the gap between the album’s vintage sound and modern pop.
With so many great elements and talented artists behind it, this album clearly has a lot going for it. There’s no question that Burton has put together a good album. Has he put together an effective western soundtrack, though? As reluctant as I am to say this, my honest answer is “no”. As hard as Burton strives to give the album a cinematic feel, it just doesn’t reach that point for me.
The music of the spaghetti western has always been incidental in nature. It’s a genre of music driven entirely by its respective genre of film, which is driven itself by one central element: conflict. What makes the classic spaghetti western music so compelling is the excitement and tension it’s helping to create as the film slowly builds, leading up to a final, inevitable confrontation. The issue here is, while Burton successfully reproduces the sounds behind the music, he never quite captures its spirit. If it is a soundtrack to a film, Rome takes after its ancient namesake much more so than the old west. Its cameras hover above silent ruins and vast, empty landscapes that its characters meander through, never reaching any discernible climax. The whole album is beautiful but subdued, and without that final showdown it just doesn’t have the essence of a western.
So, if I had to take all of this and give an overall opinion on the album, I guess I would have to express it in terms of the opening track which is, fittingly, the Theme of Rome, and the images it inspires. So, if you have it, just humor me and put it on right now.
The drums kick in, and with that first strum of the guitar, you’re in the desert, surrounded my miles of flat emptiness. The horizon is off in the infinite distance, and that huge ball of light they call the sun is climbing out from under it. As you look on, you see four figures approaching from the distance, walking in from the saloon at the other edge of the world. At first, they’re nothing more than black silhouettes, their bodies bending from the heat waves radiating off of the sand. You squint your eyes as they come closer, hoping to make out some distinguishing feature. Finally, with a few more steps the shadows are cast off of their faces. As the soprano starts to croon, and you know exactly who they are. It’s the famous desperado, Danger Mouse with his posse: Daniele Luppi, Jack White and Norah Jones, traveling with the sun at their backs. It’s a beautiful, dramatic moment; a classic western entrance…
but the longer you wait, the more apparent it becomes that they’re really quite far away. As grand as the four of them look trekking across the desert, you realize after about thirty minutes that all you’ve watched them do is walk. That’s kind of what Rome is to me. You watch Burton on his journey through the desert, but he doesn’t arrive. It’s not that watching him is bad, by any means, he just… doesn’t quite make it as far as you might have expected him to.
Radiohead: The King of Limbs
Radiohead certainly likes to keep the fans on their toes. Just when we thought there were no surprises after months of uneventful blog posts, the band announced their new album, The King of Limbs, out of nowhere, five days before its release. Immediately, the internet seemed to explode with questions and predictions without even a track list to go by. Even with only a few days between its announcement and its release, the wait for The King of Limbs seemed to last an eternity. Now the album is finally here, and after endless speculation, fans can stop whispering about it and answer the million dollar question: What is Radiohead’s latest endeavor like?
Well, it’s short for one thing. In fact, it’s the shortest album Radiohead has ever released, with a running time of just under forty minutes distributed over eight tracks. This is not another sprawling epic like OK Computer, and it does not go slowly. As the final tone fades out, The King of Limbs seems to have ended as quickly as it appeared, and after the long wait, it might be easy to feel a bit let down. However, over the course of the album’s brisk run, Radiohead has introduced a tight and concise collection of songs.
As for its sound, The King of Limbs is a strange amalgamation, taking elements from past efforts and constructing them into something new. It has the electronic elements of Kid A and Yorke’s solo work, but the thick fog of sound that defined Kid A is gone. Instead, The King of Limbs is very crisp. The album seems very spacious, and perhaps even sparse compared to older work, with every instrument clearly defined and everything in its right place. This allows the album to have very distinctive electronic elements that don’t overpower everything else. In fact, the album still sounds pretty organic. There’s plenty of guitar work (even some acoustic) and pronounced bass lines like you would find on In Rainbows, with some orchestration and piano. Codex is a stunning example of this. It begins mostly driven by piano and Thom’s voice. As his voice soars above the track, he is suddenly joined by muted brass, playing in unison, before a soft, lush string section enters. It is achingly beautiful. Add to this some really nice vocal layering that has Yorke singing multiple parts rather than simply filling in harmony. Give Up the Ghost almost sounds like something Sigur Ros could have written, and that’s hardly a complaint.
Still, as nice as these elements all are, they’ve been combined in a way that seems highly unstable. Upon my first listening, it seemed like the songs could unravel at any moment and collapse like a house of cards, especially in the first minute or so. Rest assured, though, such a collapse never happened and even tracks that started out sounding unsteady settled into something wonderful, with each jigsaw falling into place. Really, this is one of Radiohead’s most gorgeous, melodic albums. It’s an optimistic album, even if it is guardedly so. It has the same soft, emotional distance as In Rainbows and even when dark, imposing overtones creep in, it never becomes outright aggressive.
Really, if anything, The King of Limbs lives up to its namesake. The title was supposedly named after an ancient oak tree and much of the inspiration for the album came from the ideas of mythical, woodland creatures. Beings “neither malevolent or benevolent” as Stanley Donwood put it, but “simply there”. Much like these creatures, and the tree itself, The King of Limbs seems to simply be there. It is natural, neutral and numb, but also hauntingly beautiful. It’s a twisted, shape shifting shadow form; a collection of branches swaying in the breeze, but still firmly rooted to the ground. True, it’s a pretty brief breeze, but if Radiohead keeps up in this direction, hopefully they can add some more rings to the tree (or CD, I suppose) next time around.
Hey Kids, Bonus Word Search!
I’ve hidden the titles of various Radiohead songs in this review. Some of them are blatantly obvious, but a few are a little more obscure. See if you can find them all! (I’m pretty sure there are twelve in total, but I might be wrong!)
This is the review from yesterday I didn’t actually post:
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
It’s pretty safe to say Kanye’s been though the lowest point in his career. There was the VMA’s incident, the resulting meme, being called a jackass by the President and, maybe even worse, being called a gay fish by the writers of South Park. By the first half of this year, Kanye had quietly retreated from the public eye, and not too many people missed him. After having dropped off the map, though, what he’s returned with is a reminder of why we should have - an epic 70 minute journey into his beautiful, dark, twisted psyche.
Really, Kanye isn’t inviting us inside so much as he’s exploring himself and allowing us to come along for the ride. As Kanye digs into himself, battling between his self images as an Olympian god or a lonely pop idol, he also revisits and expands upon the different styles he’s acquired throughout his career. Fantasy returns to the frequent sampling of his earlier albums, but on a completely new level, with West trying such eclectic combinations as King Crimson mixed with a gospel choir, or Bon Iver with a diverse medley of beats, melodies and samples. Sometimes the mix of musical selections don’t seem like they should work, but Kanye always finds a way to hold it all together, and he’s clearly got great taste.
The minimalist elements and heartbroken themes of 808s are here too, but most of the album’s more introspective moments are handled with welcome self deprecating humor, and less self pity. Another welcome element are the actual instruments Kanye’s starting to record and compose for, rather than using synthesized material. In terms of instrumentalists and guests artists, this is Kanye’s largest effort so far, and it shows. Between the samples, the string arrangements and consistently great beats, this is some of the richest, most complex and wonderfully discordant music Kanye’s ever produced. It really goes to show that, even if Kanye may not change his ways any time soon, he’s at least expanding his horizons. Say what you will about Kanye West, but at least acknowledge what he is - talented. Sure, the guy can be a douche sometimes. But in a scene that’s allowed itself to stagnate for far too long, he’s a douche that refuses to stop evolving as an artist and who’s never afraid to challenge his listeners. As far as I’m concerned, that’s really the best thing we can ask for in a musician.
As a final thought, I thought I’d quote what is probably my favorite line of the entire album: “Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low”. I don’t care of you hate every other note, word or beat of this. That is just an epic win.
Got back today from visiting my grandparents in West Virgina and gorging myself on thanksgiving food. Ready to write my first album review:
Girl Talk: All Day
When I heard Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, was working on a new album, I got excited. I got to see him live when he came to UMBC and had an absolute blast. Then, I heard he was releasing the album for free and… I was a bit skeptical. A free album, from a mash-up artist? I thought there was a fairly good chance the album wasn’t going to be any good, but I love Girl Talk, downloaded the album anyway, and happily set aside my mistaken assumptions.
Gillis is back and doing what he does best - playing music matchmaker. He’s great at picking two tracks that mesh perfectly together, and seamlessly introducing them. Although transitions were slightly more abrupt and obvious than in his previous album, Feed The Animals, they’re always smooth and never feel forced. The whole album really shows off how ingenious he can be. What really gives the album its charm however, is how well Gillis balances being clever and comical. Listening to this album, I’d hear parts that were just brilliant, like a three way mash-up between Hot Spots by Foxy Brown, In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel, and the beat from Nine Inch Nails’ Closer. Rather than allow himself to bask in this brilliance however, Gillis can instantly segue into mash-ups that are just funny as hell, like one between Waka Flocka Flame and Mr. Oizo’s Flat Beat, a track I love. It’s a moment that refuses to take itself or Waka Flocka Flame (I feel stupid just typing his name) seriously, and it really gives one the sense that Gillis is never trying too hard. He’s just in it to have fun.
The only issue I had with this album is Gillis could have gotten that point across even without the more amusing tracks because, to be honest, I wish he had tried too hard. Gillis plays pretty safe with the material he uses. For the most part, it’s hip hop verses juxtaposed over pop or rock, and as well as he manages to find songs that fit together, he very rarely mixes melodic lines. Overall, the amount of actual singing that takes center stage is minimal, or just doesn’t fit at all. One of the jarringly low points of the album for me is a combination between M.O.B.’s Ante Up and Beyonce’s Single Ladies. It’s an awesome beat with killer vocals that never really seems to work. I was also surprised with how little Lady Gaga was on the album. The only appearances she made were limited to a few seconds of Bad Romance and her line about wanting to ride on my disco stick. Considering she’s so popular and her songs are already suited for dance music so well, it was baffling not to hear her show up more often.
Still, one of the great things about All Day is the sheer variety that’s packed into it. Even if there isn’t quite enough of your favorite artist to satisfy, I can guarantee almost anyone can listen to this album and hear at least one fragment of a song they love. For instance, I was really happy to hear Radiohead appear a few times, and delightfully surprised when Portishead and Aphex Twin made appearances (even though Gillis mixed Twin with Soulja Boy, who is impossible for me to tolerate in any way). Each individual track uses a mind blowing number of samples. There were several instances where I would hear six to ten samples fly by and be surprised to see only a minute had passed. All Day is one dense album - nowhere near the insanity of Gillis’ last album, Feed The Animals, but you still get plenty of bang for bang for your buck. Considering that amount is zero, there’s really no reason not to pick this up.