Praise and Malaise
It took a few decades, but the punk rockers figured out that classic rock radio offers a goldmine of decent ideas ready to get damaged. Dinosaur Jr. understood this to an extent, but their catalog always felt arena-ready. The acts who still, strictly aesthetically speaking, belong in the bars, basements, and DIY blowouts have begun crafting a way to take these notions of grandeur and apply them to the gritty house show ethic – an uneasy feat. The Decibel Tolls’ album of the year in 2011 was The War on Drugs’ Slave Ambient, a record that amalgamated blue collar anthems a la Springsteen with airy, atmospheric space pop via Slowdive and Spiritualized. In 2013, the next artist to master such a disparate concoction is The Men and their gorgeous follow-up to last year’s blockbuster Open Your Heart - New Moon.
New Moon showcases this five-piece as a brain trust that appreciates The Wipers and Swell Maps alongside Tom Petty and Neil Young in equal measures. Some reviewers have lambasted the record as “uneven,” as if they haven’t heard Jane In Occupied Europe before. Fuck that noise because that opinion is stupid. New Moon is both adventurous and an adventure. Cohesion was obviously left at the door when they passed through the threshold of the recording studio, and the result is a surprise turn at the closing of each song. Personally, I’m tired of thematic records. Fuck with my expectations on every song, man! Love it or loaf it, The Men are on this astral plane.
New Moon opens with possibly the biggest “hi, haters!” move in recent memory. What once was an abrasive noise punk act, “Open the Door” busts through with twangy acoustic guitar, vocal harmonies, Hammond organ, and rollicking, waltzy piano. It’s AM Gold as fuck, and I love it. “Half Angel Half Lights” moves to the FM spectrum with power pop somewhere between the aforementioned Petty and an original take on Big Star. Earthy, dense, and remarkably delicate, not to mention a chorus saturated with wah-guitar that comes out of nowhere, New Moon is already a top ten contender two songs in.
“Without a Face” comes raging with a bizarre bucolic version of Sonic Youth or Mission of Burma, and moves into art-damaged electric folk and jangle pop with a Francis Bacon spin. Say, isn’t this the same group of guys who released Immaculada in 2010, a record that toggled between Belong style suffocating ambient noise and Jesus Lizard thrash? Some reviewers have likened New Moon to a transitional record, but really last year’s Open Your Heart provided the bridge. The Men’s strange, spacey cowpunk and unbridled punk muscle are most focused on New Moon, and the latter has never sounded better than with “The Brass,” single “Electric,” and “I See No One” – New Moon’s crowning trifecta. Talk about making noise rock lush. Talk about providing this level of sonic terror, replete with (calculated) junky percussion and disjointed composition, that spits out aerodynamic pop melodies aimed directly at the International Space Station.
The final trio of songs shows The Men at their most psychedelia-oriented – juke joint reverberated vocals (“Freak”), warm analog organ splatter (“Bird Song”), and multi-movement sludgy hypnosis (“Supermoon”). Considering it appears that The Men put serious thought into sequencing, not just doin’ the whole “dropped off some tracks on the way to the grocery” thing three-quarters of rock bands lazily plod through, one could infer this might be the direction The Men head toward when their next album drops (which at this rate would be next year). And that’s fine by me. It’s a real challenge to weave so succinctly a pastiche of so many different genres, while placing a distinct, cohesive stamp on each diversion – and in The Men’s case, that means sending the canonical songwriting through the shredder.
Sure, not all the juxtapositions and expectation-turning immediately makes sense, but The Men are throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what sticks. Most of the time it works, and truth be told, it’s a pleasure to be invited to hear them work through a myriad of ideas that also end up as great songs.
The Men’s New Moon is available now via Sacred Bones.
Fagen-Becker Quality Rating
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My Bloody Valentine – 9.27.08 – The Aragon, Chicago
Ariel Pink has always intensely dichotomized most listeners, that’s to say, the old trope of the brilliant vs. bullshit argument he tends to present. Even his previously best work, Worn Copy, came replete with a healthy smattering of total sonic bullshit. And yet, buried under the washes of wholly demented and warped 8-track pop for the mescaline demographic was a vision. Not necessarily one you wanted to see, but a vision nonetheless. That vision is Mature Themes. That’s not to say Mature Themes is an endpoint, or that this record is what Pink’s entire musical trajectory has been leading to. Rather, it’s a record that provides a quintessential snapshot of Ariel Pink as the anti-artist.
Albums and tons of individual choices in the songwriting process are often slapped with the label of surrealism. This is often misused when talking about abstract moments in art, with metaphors, or anything that cannot easily be defined. The word surrealism opens a whole world of missteps when writing about music because it’s used as an opportunity to find individual meaning of abstraction based solely off projection. Surrealism is grounded in finding the superior reality in something undefined by fact. It’s bizarre to think of the newest offering from Ariel Pink, Mature Themes, as surrealist as so many critics have labeled it to be, because Ariel Pink is neither proposing any reality nor a desire to explore one. Mature Themes is Dada art – arguably the first true form of dadaism in our modern “indie” world. Mature Themes isn’t schizophrenic, as many would have you to believe; it’s anti-art, a document to point the finger at the current state of art, only to be laughably slapped with critical scores, violating the whole concept.
That the record is titled Mature Themes is both ironic and ironically not. A quick scan of the album’s lyrics reveal an album saturated in approaches to human sexuality so sophomoric they make Avey Tare look like Dr. Drew, with decidedly twisted imagery sprinkled within. Yet, Mature Themes also ropes in the many facets of the enigmatic Pink into a cohesive vision. Mature Themes acts as a concept record in that regard (since it probably is), and to pull all that off successfully in a single record makes us flirt with the idea that Ariel Pink might be the closest our generation will have to a Frank Zappa figure. Sure, Zappa was a revolutionary in music composition while making fun of everyone at the same time. Pink might not be an accomplished musician of that level, but his sheer prolific output, ear for melody, clairvoyant trademark sound, and uncanny ability to consolidate 30 years of pop music — as experienced exclusively on warped analog media — cultivates a level of newness that demands a genius label. To accomplish this within the aforementioned framework of Dadaism in a modern sense is a triumph.
The entire record is not based on the principles of Dadaism; the art form exists solely in the presentation of the lyrics, juxtaposed against catchy hooks noding to several decades of musical influence. With Dada’s intention to act as counter art and to often offend, Ariel Pink delivers (or doesn’t) in spades. The lyrics on Mature Themes constantly shift, destroying any possibility of structure or complete understanding, while often employing unadvisable vocal recording techniques to frustrate the listener. On “Schnitzel Boogie,” the listener is subjected to almost three minutes of the same call and response, alternating from tolerable delivery to a high whine that scrapes every nerve in the body. On “Symphony Of The Nymph,” several verses drop far down into the mix to the point of inaudibility, causing listeners to adjust their volume and/or check their headphones; a version of Andy Kaufman’s color bars test card prank. Ariel Pink toys with the listener and laughs, offering the listener the choice to accept the madness/genius, get out, or analyze such moves with anger and fall right into what he’s commenting on.
It’s within this Dada approach that we find our most fond speculations, theories, and pleasure. Marcel Duchamp, who will forever be known as the guy who flipped a urinal upside down and called it art, focused his Dada art around “readymades”. Readymades are exactly like they sound, pieces of art already created but presented to take on a new meaning, or in the case of Duchamp, to challenge meaning. Ariel Pink echoes this throughout the album and leads us to our first theory on Mature Themes. If Dada art is structured around anti-art, Mature Themes is structured around the analysis of our new Youtube culture as anti-art. Throughout music we’ve always had sampling, which mirrors the concept of readymades, but Ariel Pink pushes this further by presenting Youtube culture in two ways. First, mimicking the act of Youtube as a stream of disjointed content user-curated on impulse and secondly, making reference after reference to popular Youtube videos. Where most critics find Ariel Pink’s approach to lyrics schizophrenic, we’d argue they’re a direct statement about how we consume, in large amounts, clips of readymade art, one after another, with little to connect the ideas together, save for some vague sense of loose personal association or context. We’ve all sat around with a group of friends and journeyed down the wormhole of shit that Youtube is. “Oh, that’s funny, but have you seen this?” Click. Play. Here’s a cat doing something hilarious. Here’s a dude getting hit in the junk with a tire iron. Someone else throws out another Youtube video. If one was to analyze the videos shown in such a gathering, a sense of curating against themes or an overall structure would be hard to find, just as Ariel Pink’s seemingly ADD lyrics are presented. In this, Ariel Pink is creating anti-art that is upholding exactly the fundamentals of Dada art – to create a criticism of the time we live in by using an offensive/agitating approach that calls into question our own realities.
The second part of this is the actual use of readymades. They’re all over Mature Themes, executed to great effect and offers rewards to discerning listeners. On “Symphony Of The Nymph,” Ariel uses the often sampled instrumental, “Apache,” written by Jerry Lordon. If you listen closely, the version Ariel Pink is riffing off of is the bass heavy Tommy Seebach version that gained great popularity due to the cheesy, yet brilliant, music video that became a Youtube favorite. On “Farewell American Primitive” Ariel Pink then uses one of the actual preset AI Macintosh voices to make a quick reference to Dan Deacon and Liam Lynch’s famous Youtube skit “Drinking Out Of Cups”: “Not my chair, not my problem”. A readymade within a readymade – good lookin’ out, Ariel. This is quickly followed by an all out sample fest dropout, with Ariel performing a rendition concurrently with the Macintosh vocals “Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa, Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa,” referencing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The use of this incoherent Michael Jackson line can be easily passed off as Ariel indulging in incoherent moments if you want to be pedestrian about it. Jackson stole the line from a singer from Douala, Manu Dibango, who wrote the line “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which in the Cameroonian language of Duala is a description of dance, the broken sentence really saying “makossa,” “I dance.”
Jackson liked the way it sounded and changed various syllables, thus creating a phrase that means nothing yet derived from a sentence that embraced one of Michael Jackson’s most important facets as an artist: dance. Ariel Pink then samples Jackson, who stole from Dibango, and re-imagined its meaning once again because… shocker, Dibango’s original song was the “hymn” for the Cameroonian football team during the, what, 1972 Tropics Cup… ”Not My Chair, Not My Problem” ….Dan Deacon’s Drinking Out Of Cups…boom, bang, the moon landing was staged. Now, was this the intention of Ariel Pink? Probably not. But that’s the point of Dada art and why Ariel Pink is one step ahead of everyone with Mature Themes.
Beyond the Dada nature of Mature Themes, the album also employs prodigious use of deconstructionism, absurdism, satire, and a sweeping piecemeal pastiche of three decades of pop music. Mature Themes is like The Avalanches’ Since I’ve Left You in that sense, except it’s all done by him. Ariel blows right out of the gate with “Kinski Assassin.” Ariel sarcastically muses about “who sunk my battleship,” replying “I sunk my battleship” with the same snotty cadence an 8-year-old on the playground would use calling a classmate “retarded” or “deflicted” (remember that insult? always liked that one). The sarcasm reaches critical mass when Ariel runs the scales in the chorus “fa la la la.” This song is so rich with playfulness, winks, and novel techniques (simulating the dropping of bombs in the phallic WWIII imagery “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs, bombs, bombs, kick-outs in technicolor, talk to your moms”) as well as the blatant satirizing of rock music (the studio clamor of “that’s right”). You have to appreciate Ariel Pink cluing the listener in on the bizarre carousel they’re about to get on while they still have time to defect.
“Is This The Best Spot?” once again amalgamates war imagery and sexuality (he really has it out for ex Geneva Jacuzzi, whose breakup was supposedly an inspiration for much of the album). But even before that madness, you’re treated to a yelling of “go!” 9 seconds in that’s either a direct sample of dead-on impression of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash.” The best part – the “go!” doesn’t even kick the song off, there’s still one more bar of the intro before “Is This The Best Spot?” offers up the best Devo since Devo. The title track references the tight percussion and tinty, shimmering guitars of Fleetwood Mac, while “Only In My Dreams” goes for baroque. Shades of Eno and Beach Boys are peppered throughout with a Ween veneer. “Early Birds of Babylon” offers up the punkest, most Fugazi-riffin’ anthem since Worn Copy’s “Trepanated Earth,” with a dash of the spookiness that made made Pink’s earlier, less focused work so intriguing. Pink goes topical on ammonia injected supermarket meats with “Pink Slime,” mustering up that much-missed trademark falsetto crooning on the “good I made just for you.” Despite the pranks and musical trolling, Mature Themes spat out some of Ariel Pink’s best music, period, like “Live It Up” and “Nostradamus & Me.”
Somehow, Mature Themes demonstrates brilliance and banality concurrently, sincerity and Dada – a record so confounding that both me and We Listen For You had to put on lab coats and attempt to dissect this record with our minds. In the end, Mature Themes still won, leaving us defeated with the Charlie Brown theme running in the background. This is actually a good feeling, at least when you appreciate a good musical mindfuck. When you create a fascinating album, disjointed by hanging strings of half themes and jumbled lyrics, you create critical madness, thus destroying the process of artistic critique altogether. In this, the whole point of Mature Themes reveals itself. If you want to dissect anti-art, go ahead, have a ball. All it will lead to are wild projections that the artists never meant to communicate through their art. Or is that the fun? Is that upside down toilet art? For us, Mature Themes is a humorous slice of anti-art that is both genius and not, the most cunning example of current songwriting, with some of the worst lyrics ever created. What is worst? What is best? Fuck it. The toilet is art and Mature Themes is a success because it sent us on a long journey to the dead end of musical criticism, only to find that that the dead end of musical critique can be as fascinating, fulfilling, and more fun than any perfectly packaged album that puts it all out there for the sake of understanding. We heard you Ariel Pink, and there are months and years to follow of fun as we willfully answer a question that was never proposed.
Where myriad artistic schools of thought and unyielding self-aware demented satire collide with celestial violence, you’ll find Mature Themes, a record that more than any other in the past decade truly encapsulates the idea of the
Earlier this year, Woodsman released Rare Forms, a full-length in which the band explored both the grimy industrial labyrinth of ’70s German experimentalism and the rustic, bucolic light flights that resemble sunshine-saturated psychedelia. During my interview with the band in early April, Trevor Peterson revealed that Rare Forms did not, conceptually speaking, represent where the band is now – a result of the gestation period required to properly release a record and Woodsman’s never-ending creative stream. That was no hyperbole, as just nine months later, Mystic Places establishes Woodsman as a very different artist.
Mystic Places is, in some ways, a harsher, less fluid effort, with a diminished focus on vibing, more attention to texture, rigid song structures, and rhythmic intensity. The new sound propels into dark chasms at remarkable velocity while punching at the cave walls – best evidenced on “In Circles,” the first single dropped from the EP. As always with this band of course, that’s only one side of the story. These more concise songs also beget a stronger sense of pop accessibility. More importantly, though the bliss-outs of Rare Forms are all but negated on the EP, the totemic quartet has perfected the type of aerodynamic, soaring choruses that would do early Floyd and Spiritualized fans quite well.
Some of Mystic Places is certainly a recognizable extension from Rare Forms, such as “View From the Vision Hand” – a perfect complement to “Inside/Outside” that features driving, mostly instrumental tension interspersed with telescreen-evoking vocal snippets. “Parallel Minds” and “In Circles” showcase Woodsman’s well-established dichotomy – ambient narcotic mystery tours and pummeling skyward neo-kraut. The EP’s highlight is “Specdrum,” a four-minute interstellar overdrive that combines all of Woodsman’s key elements in utterly top form – snaky guitar melodies, celestial ambience, primordial dual rhythms, and gorgeous, shimmering canyon calls. Woodsman has always crafted arresting tribal motorik, but “Specdrum” takes it to some other, intangible level. They’ve hit a stride.
What hasn’t changed throughout Mystic Places is Woodsman’s metaphysical flavor. As their previous albums so masterfully accomplished, Mystic Places funnels their own mysticism through the prism of mysterious American southwest environs – the Earth Hum, the Marfa Lights, Roswell, and that oddity that’s the Denver International Airport. With Rare Forms, Woodsman becomes both more enigmatic, yet accessible and easy to grasp – a monumental effort.
Mystic Places drops TODAY Trevor Peterson’s own Fire Talk!
Woodsman – Specdrum
Though some would argue the contrary, Louisville’s “indie rock” (whatever that is) scene can come off as a stridently dichotomous entity. On one end of the spectrum, the city is known for its prodigal sons of radio-ready anthems a la My Morning Jacket, Bonnie Prince Billy, etc. On the other, pupils in the Slint and Rodan school keep the flame of fringe alive – excellent acts like Nzambi, Phantom Family Halo, R. Keenan Lawler, and Softcheque who concoct boundary-decimating music that sometimes proves too challenging for the fried attention spans of the digital age sect. Very few artists have found the perfect median between experimental exploration and pop accessibility, and none have captured it with the panache that Nerves Junior has on their debut As Bright As Your Night Light.
The feat is particularly impressive as Nerves Junior is a young band still rife with potential. Less than two years old, all in their early 20s, Nerves Junior is a five piece who found a kinship by sharing a love for weird retro garage rock, crystalline pop songwriting, Brit-style bombast, and racks of analog gear. Let’s get comparisons out of the way because that’s what reviewers do, right? Deerhunter. Women. Lower Dens. And… I’m gonna say… I don’t wanna say it but it’s true… Radiohead. Usually when you see that name dropped, it’s frown town, indicative of some sort of archetypal shitty bar band that just happened to pick up a synth or a Boss Dr. Sampler. The Onion nailed that phenomenon perfectly a couple years ago. But when you see Stuart Phelps grinds his axe through the Masonic third degree on stage, and hear those razor sharp angular tones coupled with an unyielding sense of sonic adventurism, it’s not an unfair comparison. That’s just on the surface, of course. Viscerally, Nerves Junior are distinct; a formidable being that exited the womb with a fully formed musical identity.
Their nine-song debut offers an expansive, eclectic collection of electronic-laden, off-kilter pop with a hook-heavy edge and dense atmosphere, equally psychedelic and concise. Dreamy, ambient meditations and waves of soft acoustic guitar on the well-crafted “Get Left in the Dark” and the intimate down-the-rabbit-hole dirge of “Downtown Lament” represent one end of the group’s repertoire, while the dark analog stomp and driving mid-tempo of “Kale” and soaring, intricate chorus of “Swimmer’s Ear” showcases the group at their most expansive. Nerves Junior’s flawless meshing of airborne, resplendent textures and infectious choruses hit a fever pitch on songs like “In Absentia” and the aquatic, cathartic “Champagne & Peaches.” The title track suggests the grandeur of a stadium-ready chant, yet the tribal drumming and claustrophobic, monolithic wall of fuzz and reverb launches the song, and the album’s mid-section, somewhere wholly otherworldly.
Without compromise and immune to any and all trend-riding, Nerves Junior are paving their own path with a distinct spin on both the twilight fringes of post-punk electro futurism and denser-than-lead dream pop gravitas. Nerves Junior is a transcendent beast, one that can appeal to elitist niche ears as well as casual listeners. As Bright As Your Night‘s melodic sophistication and vast sonic palette is major league in every facet. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
<a href=”http://nervesjunior.bandcamp.com/album/as-bright-as-your-night-light” _mce_href=”http://nervesjunior.bandcamp.com/album/as-bright-as-your-night-light”>As Bright As Your Night Light by Nerves Junior</a>