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Month: March 2012

Access vs. Exposure, or Why I Don't Write Bad Reviews Anymore

Plants and AnimalsThe End of That enthusiastically and successfully combines “Wonderwall”-esque Brit-pop with modern indie bombast a la Frightened Rabbit (“Lightshow,” “2010”). If you’re excited about that sentence, check out the aforementioned tunes and then go forth to the album. If you think, “I’ve heard that before,” you’re correct—analysis of that sentiment follows.

Plants and Animals understands that in 2012, people ask a lot of indie bands. They’ve got to churn out a single, a viral video, and a fully-formed album to be seen as the complete package. Some bands excel so greatly at one aspect (Sleigh Bells, OK Go, Radiohead, respectively) that their attempts at the other two go underappreciated or even maligned.

That’s in the left hand. In the right hand is a growing “end of history” mentality in indie-rock, which was neatly encapsulated last week when Jayson Greene of Pitchfork pondered: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction?” (Greene’s response: “Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas.”) People are genuinely worried that there’s nothing left to say, not just in indie-rock but in, uh, everything. Simon Reynolds spends all of Retromania laying the death of creativity at the feet of a myriad of sources that include YouTube and Flying Lotus. What’s a band supposed to do when it’s asked to do more than ever, but people believe less than ever that it is saying and sounding something meaningful?

Answer: whatever it wants. In a critical environment that’s so hyper-analytical, so backward-referencing, so instantly affirmative or negative, there’s no recourse but to simply put stuff out. I hope this sounds reductive, because it is. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of or even antagonistic toward critics anymore, because hot on the heels of both the aforementioned quandaries is a third problem that is purely a critic’s concern: readers of criticism now have access to whatever they want. Critics don’t have exclusive access to the goods anymore, and that means that the original power of the critic is greatly reduced.

Lest I pull the trigger on the gun pointed at my foot, a clarification: The original power of the critic was the power to exalt or destroy, by telling people to not waste their cash on something terrible. Because cash is now not a bar to access, the writer’s power to destroy is much less; the critical backlash to Tapes’N’Tapes was almost a palpable thing at one point, but people still listened to the band’s music. (And the band still put out more music.) Critics, even the still-hugely-influential Pitchfork, can’t kill a band. (Not even Black Kids.)

With that in mind, there’s a conclusion here that relates to the very short but specific review of The End of That posited above: There is now no reason to write bad reviews. Why would space that could be given to something incredible be dedicated to something mediocre? Part of the reason indie music is wallowing in mediocrity (if you agree that it is, but that’s a different article altogether) is that we consistently foreground it. By giving bad reviews and mediocre reviews equal space and footing in our media outlets, critics create an environment that gives the all-coveted “exposure” to bands that are just okay. This is devastating to the state of music because “exposure” is the critic’s new power: a ready-made audience, dedicated to reading what the writer has to say. The access is available to all, but if “all” doesn’t know that the access is there to be had, no one accesses it.

“Lightshow” and “2010” are great tunes, and that’s where the review kicked off. Honestly, the review could have ended there, and that would have said (most of) what I wanted to say. I left off naming any other songs, because in my analysis they should be left off, as they aren’t particularly as exciting as the first two. However, the album as a whole can be praised as a well-conceived long-player for a certain audience. That includes shades of the Jayson Greene analysis, for sure, but that is still a recommendation for people who are into that particular subgenre.

But does my par-for-the-course analysis of “Crisis!” and “Why & Why” mean that those songs don’t have as much worth as “Lightshow”? No. There are writers out there enthusiastically parsing their depths. With the myriad of available voices, a critic is only as quantifiably meaningful as the size of his audience. As Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will note, not even the whole current critical audience moving in one direction is all-powerful. So even though this review will not result in Plants and Animals ending up on my year-end list, it is entirely likely that someone will read it, hear “Lightshow,” and love it—which is what I intended the first line of this review to do, because “Lightshow” might end up on my 50 best songs of the year list. It’s that good.

So if critics can’t kill a band, but they might expose its work to the masses if it does something awesome, why not go make something completely, idiosyncratically its own? And critics, ignore those idiosyncratic things unless and until you love them. Readers, support the bands that you find and love with money (in the form of album sales, Kickstarter contributions, donations to the band while they’re on tour, whatever). The mediocrity be lessened; the good will out; music will grow.

Neal Morgan's drums and voice compositions intrigue

If you’re like me, you have a draw toward things that are different. This holds true across many spectrums, but it’s especially true in the music department. Hearing the same songs or structures again and again bores me like none other. I’d assume most of you are at least partially like this, otherwise you wouldn’t be checking out a music discovery site such as IC.

Thankfully, there are many acts out there that satisfy my desire to hear the unique and creative. Neal Morgan’s 2012 LP In The Yard is one of those albums.

Morgan is most noted for his drumming on Joanna Newsom’s album Have One On Me, but In The Yard, released January 24th on Drag City Records, marks his second solo LP release. The record is a drum and voice masterpiece that includes soloing, poetry, spoken word, improvisation, and Simon & Garfunkel-esque background vocal melodies. Morgan covers all the bases.

Tracks like “I Stand on a Roof” feature brilliantly-written, poetic lyrics with eccentric drum fills spacing about the whole cut. Other cuts, like “Thinking Big,” combine vocal harmonies, killer grooves and more of Morgan’s signature spoken word over the top and interlaced throughout the track. As a drummer, I naturally am drawn to this work for Morgan’s groove behind the kit.

A small disclaimer here: I would definitely recommend Morgan to the adventurous listener. If nothing else, it feels good to try something new. But for me, this certainly deserves several more listens to fully grasp just how unique and refreshing this album is.

In The Yard is a tough album to capsulate into one post. The sound is unique and not something that is heard every day. For an artistic change of pace, Morgan’s album is the perfect fit. —Clark Foy

Community Records' huge pop-punk-based comp thrills

I have waxed rhapsodic over the joys of the compilation album before, but here’s a reminder: I love the idea of twenty or more bands all chilling on the same disc. SXSW is kind of like one giant compilation, if you conflate seeing music live and hearing it recorded.

But what’s even better than a great comp is a great comp from a high-quality label. If that label is a homegrown, upstart indie, all the better! And Community Records (no, really, that’s the awesome name) has released just such a disc with their Compilation Volume 3: Old Dog, New Tricks. The album showcases 26 (!) bands associated with the New Orleans-based label; a footnote states, “Download free music from all of these bands on our web-site.” (That’s prolific!)

Some well-known bands like A Billion Ernies, Marathon and Swear Jar are present here, alongside a slew of up-and-comers. The music falls into five general genres: pop-punk, ska, hardcore/post-hardcore, acoustic and reggae-ish stuff.

The pop-punk is the lion’s share of the material. Caddywhompus’ “The Weight” won my heart by incorporating prog-based rhythms and melodies into its pop-punk, giving the song a very Fang Island-esque feel. Safety’s “Alone Together” throws down great melodies and energy in an early-2000s pop-punk style; the action-packed 91 seconds of The Rooks’ “The Benefit of Fish Tacos” throws all sorts of things into an unconventional song structure. The off-kilter “I’m Not Done Yet” by All People is oddly catchy as well.

The highlights of the ska offerings are the wildly varied tune by A Billion Ernies, the rhythms-not-horns ska of “They Can’t Fix Me” by Matt Wixson’s Flying Circus, and the gruff ska-punk of Brunt of It’s “Bad Sign.”

I wasn’t too into the loud stuff or the reggae, but the acoustic offerings are worth note: my favorite tune on the whole comp is See You in Mexico’s “Human Race.” It starts off as a pensive, moody tune in the Deja Entendu vein, then kicks into acoustic-punk high gear for the satisfying conclusion. The vocal melodies and harmonies are especially notable. Closer “Live On” by Matt Wixson (minus the Flying Circus) is a charming, lo-fi acoustic pop song that could be sung around campfires forever. “Summer’s Slumber” by Dominique LeJeune is a poignant, female-fronted acoustic love song that made me swoon a bit.

There’s all sorts of things inbetween, from woozy, New Orleans-style jazz bombast (Stuck Lucky’s “Finland”) to the indie-rock haze of Sun Hotel’s “Talks.” I mean, with 27 tracks, there’s almost something for everyone who even remotely likes the idea of modern punk. That should be a strong motivator for you to check out Community Records’ Old Dog, New Tricks.

Quick hits: Jacob Furr / Soft Swells / FU

Jacob Furr‘s folk EP Farther Shores opens up with the high desert feel of “Voices on the Sea,” which he kindly allowed us to debut. Furr’s fully-realized vision gives a strategically-placed shaker equal footing with accordion and pedal steel in creating the mood, while warbling background voices conjure images of awe-inspiring ghost riders. “Set Your Mind” follows in the same Southwestern sort of mindset before giving way to the more emotional last three tunes of the set. The fingerpicked “Farewell Old Friend” is an intimate, quiet tune that sits in stark contrast to the stately, carefully-arranged tracks before it. “Sailed Away” and “Sunrise in the City” show that he can arrange for emotional effect as well as the theatrical, but the fragile beauty of “Farewell Old Friend” gets to the heart of the matter: leaving means sadness at what’s behind and wonder at what’s before. Here’s to that idea, and to one of the first truly memorable songs I’ve heard all year.

Soft Swells‘ self-titled debut has several things going for it: the duo knows how to orchestrate a mid-tempo pop song, mesh fuzzy synths and acoustic instruments together seamlessly, and use a good melody when they’ve got it. The first two qualities appear throughout the ten-song album, while the third is mostly concentrated in the first half of the order. “Every Little Thing” establishes the soft but energetic sound and sells it with a desperate white boy melody/lyric of “You look so much smarter than me!” The killer track here is “Overrated,” which kept me humming along for a few days with perky synths and vocal melodies in a narrator’s attempt to “trust this love isn’t overrated.” The acoustic-led “Say It Like You Mean It” breaks up the consistent feel that the band has established, but it doesn’t stick—the band is too enamored with its titular sound to build this into a Transatlanticism-style indie-pop adventure. Still, the early songs are a ride in and of themselves.

FU is a Japanese indie-rock band led an enthusiastic guitarist/vocalist who goes by Ubi Quitous. I mention the nationality for two reasons: A) to make the point that despite the country, there’s not that much difference in indie rock structure and B) To explain why I can’t quote most of the song titles in ON THE EARTH!!!. And that first point rings remarkably true, as the three-piece blazes through guitar-based music that calls up everything from The Appleseed Cast’s optimistically growing epics to Rage Against the Machine’s guitar noodling to the Gin Blossoms’ mid-’90s alt-countryish guitar rock. I have no idea if FU has heard of any of these bands, but American listeners will make the comparisons quickly. The fact that all of this is mashed into one sound is distinctly interesting; it’s held together by neat guitar/bass interplay and the fascinating, beautiful guitar tone. The one cultural difference: the theatrical, affected vocal style is a bit of an acquired taste, but I think it’s worth it. The 16-song album offers up interesting offerings throughout, but, admittedly, there will be some who can’t get through the element noted in the previous sentence. For those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the band will be in America later this year.