Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Robotics, Jazz & a Soundtrack in the Making…



Shining
Grindstone
Rune Grammafon
Released 2.20.07

Rating: 8 out of 10

Last Sunday, I scored an opportunity to hang out with my brother, which means that we spent a lot of time listening to records and talking music. I had a list going of all these records I wanted to play for him, which were too numerous to remember so any moment I thought of something he HAD to hear, I would turn off whatever the stereo was blasting in exchange for whatever I had in mind. I was expressing the sort of erratic and misplaced energy reserved for A.D.D.-fueled channel surfers. At some point during this wave of excited “show n’ tell,” I threw on Grindstone, the latest offering by Norway-bred progressive quartet Shining, and watched his face sort of bend and twist into a series of facial expressions as he seriously considered what he was hearing.

“This album is like a film score,” I told him, “for an old science fiction movie. It’s like how the future sounded 20 years ago.” He sort of liked that description, especially once he heard the boldly synthesized voice and the fuzz-toned bass-lines of “Asa Nisi Masa,” which plays like Blade Runner meets War Games. Not to say that Shining sounds antiquated. They add a refreshing dose of innovation to the otherwise played sci-fi, robo motif and approach the rest of Grindstone with remarkable attention to intensity, instrumentation and experimentation. With every track, Shining throws curveballs, displaying a strong willingness to remain uncategorized or, maybe to an extent, not completely understood. That being said, Grindstone is initially difficult to figure out, but once you get it, you can’t help but appreciate it.

To reiterate though, listening to Grindstone is like sampling a beautifully and wildly conceived film score. It’s opener, “In The Kingdom Of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster,” (also the name of an earlier album), being one of the few tracks with vocals, works perfectly as an intro, oozing an Ozzy-inspired howl over syncopated beats, eerie acoustic guitar strings and woodwind whistling. It’s a hard track, throwing out time signatures that never seem out-of-place. It just works. Keeping up the intensity, the sound-storm dubbed “Winterreise,” plays some Mars Volta-inspired percussion, but offers up some powerful choral singing amidst the fury.

Then, things get weird. “Stalemate Longan Runner” begins with a fractured idea of its rhythm and then works its way into high-speed rock power only to abruptly end with dinner party harpsichord. The conservative keys fade into chimes for “To Be Proud Of Crystal Colors Is To Live Again” and “Moonchild Mindgames” almost plays like a waltz number with blobs of bottom end synthesizer obscuring the distant piano and whistling saw-whine.

“The Red Room” revisits the fractured rhythms of “Stalemate,” compounding that with Albert Ayler-styled sax playing and then powers into a freeform bass/drum frenzy. The aforementioned “Asa Nisi Masa” follows that up with offbeat electricity and robotic vocals. “To Be Proud Of Colors Is To Live Again” reprises before “Psalm,” a close-to orchestral and angelic piece of music, confirms that Shining live to create intensity in any form. “Psalm” is a mid-way mindblower, exploiting studio experimentation while providing a powerful background for singer, Åshild Skiri Refsdal.

“-… .- - .-. …” acts as an interlude before “1:4:9”’s guitar noise and diabolical orchestration suggests the “moment before something horrible” strikes. Refsdal adds her voice here as well.

Climaxing our film, “Fight Dusk With Dawn” makes us wonder if it’s a happy ending we’re going to get. Menacing guitar start things off and the song explodes into an intense mass of freeform jazz and progressive metal a la Mr. Bungle. By the time the last bits of noise emerge, the gong of a distant bell, the song has more or less faded into nothing and then the credits roll a cappella.

As the music played, my brother at one point sort of shook his head in agreement and said, “I like this.” It seemed understated, but Grindstone is an album that requires consideration before it earns enthralled devotion. It’s a thinking piece that arouses conflicting emotions with every track and implies some kind of a story. It’s difficult to know what kind of story that is, but rest assured that it’s worthwhile.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I thought this was a Stooges album...



The Stooges
The Weirdness
Virgin
Released 3.07.07

Rating: 2 out of 10

In a little more than a week, Iggy Pop will be 60 years old. Consider this when you hear him push his throat to the max, showing very little wear and tear despite a career that would have a lesser man bibbed and broken, lips quivering as his nurse maid struggles to get a spoonful of strained carrots into his mouth. But, also consider this when you hear a lyric as grossly stupid as “my dick is turning into a tree,” (the album’s opening track, “Trollin’”) and realize that the big six-oh drove him to make that unnecessary observation. Hey, he can still rock, he can still get it up…The Stooges must still be amazing, right?

‘Fraid not.

It’s 2007. Unfortunately for The Stooges, it’s not 1969 or 1970. Jumping off from a three-album legacy that brought alienation and hard rock to a new level of dismay at the hands (and ears) of rock critics and parents everywhere, Iggy and the brothers Asheton have come together to bring you The Weirdness: an unfortunate and bewildering catalogue of songs that dare us to listen without squeezing our T.V. eyes in agony. Trying to enliven The Stooges’ past reputation as the group that demanded danger when rock’s “bad boys” (The Stones) were yelping “gimme shelter,” Iggy boasts that “rock critics wouldn’t like this at all” in an attempt to convince us that he and his band of Michigan madmen are still deadly. And, it’s possible that they still are deadly. Y’know…when they’re on stage. Umm…and playing the old shit. The only danger present within this 12-song mistake is that its existence can only taint the band’s impact. And, it’s a realistic possibility once you hear a track like “Free & Freaky.”

Recruiting legendary bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) to take the place of the late Dave Alexander, and bringing back Steve Mackaye, the free form sax player that added some layers to Fun House, the plan was to get back to their point of origin pre-Raw Power. Interestingly though, The Weirdness sounds more like Raw Power, Ron Asheton channeling James Williamson’s hot guitar licks as opposed to his own savage Fun House riffs. Producer, Steve Albini, goes relatively unnoticed here in his roll, as does Watt who is criminally under-utilized and so unimportant that he doesn’t even qualify to get his picture with the band.

Because the music is such a vast departure from the ear-splitting abrasiveness with which The Stooges of yore threw down, a lot of The Weirdness comes off like an Iggy-solo affair. He still digs the chicks (“Trollin’”), seems fairly self-congratulatory about his wealth (“ATM”) but fancies himself better than his fellow wealthy types (“Greedy Awful People”). He’s also been keeping up on his pop culture, name-dropping Dr. Phil in one instance. Of all the names to put on your CD, man.

“My Idea of Fun,” a riff I actually dig, almost gets it right. Where it screws up is that it’s actually an observation about society’s lust for violent entertainment. The song’s refrain “My idea of fun/is killing everyone” would’ve been cooler if it was about Iggy. It would’ve also been more of a Stooges song if that had been the case. “Mexican Guy,” an instance where Watt stands out, draws some of its percussion from the “1969” book of tricks (as they do on “Greedy Awful People,” but “Mexican Guy” is a better song) and helps sell the album a little more. The album’s gem is its title track, a slow jam starring Iggy in croon mode, provides a decent platform for Mackaye to push some air through his sax.

But, The Weirdness doesn’t only get it almost right. It also fails.

The aforementioned “Trollin,’” starting things off all wrong with comments about Iggy’s arboreal virility, vulgarly conveys the obvious in the most ridiculous of terms. “You Can’t Have Friends” is immediately forgettable and “The End of Christianity” succeeds at making no fucking sense. There’s an opening line about Iggy having the hots for a black chick and then it’s apparently the end of Christianity. Who knew?

But “Free & Freaky,” is so remarkable that it deserves its own paragraph. I would like to have been there to see Steve Albini’s reaction when he first set his ears on this disgraceful bit of clichéd patriotism gone completely…fucking…awry. I think Toby Keith’s American boot to the ass may have been more poetic next to this song and the fact that The Stooges name has anything to do with it is a crime. It really knocks the wind out of the rest of the album, which probably isn’t saying much but I’m trying to be diplomatic.

“She Took My Money” and album closer, “I’m Fried,” supply a couple decent riffs but…whatever. “Passing Cloud” just sort of happens, revisiting the slow/jazz/crooner formula, but the title track does it better.

To me, the true weirdness of The Weirdness is the seeming lack of enthusiasm and intensity with which the songs are treated. It feels half-assed and I don’t know if Iggy and the Ashetons were under a deadline or if they were just convinced that the fans would be happy no matter what. But, being one of those fans myself, I would’ve liked a little more out of them. The Weirdness, disappointingly, serves only to stain their otherwise spotless and seminal existence.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead

Notes from the Record Room: Bring on the Kill Taker

I was in Ocean City, New Jersey with a friend, sitting outside on a deck with a boombox resting between us. It was 1993. On this particu...