THE POLYPHONIC SPREE – Together We’re Heavy (2004)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Ed Luo

This is grand, epic and BIG. Together we’re heavy indeed, if by ‘heavy’ you mean producing symphonic-sounding universalist anthems. But let’s look at the band behind the album: The Polyphonic Spree is a group of about 20 constantly rotating musicians from Dallas led by a man called Tim DeLaughter (which actually rhymes with ‘daughter’ and not ‘laughter’, for your information), who is pretty much the only constant member. Tim’s idea is basically making catchy indie pop BUT with a major difference – contrary to the 00s musical fashion and giving absolutely zero fucks about being ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’, he drenches his songs in lush orchestral arrangements and gives them bombastic gospel-like choir treatment.

The results (at least on this album, which is their only record I’ve heard so far) are predictably GRAND. The messages of the album doubly so: Love thy neighbor! Peoples of the world unite in one sweeping motion! Be happy, today is the best day of your life! Let’s sing together for love and peace! Stand up, throw your hands in the air, sing your throat out and be free! “You gotta be strong, you gotta be two thousand places at once”, “and love will shine today”! These guys are practically making 1967 happen again, at least within the limits of this particular record. And with some good memorable melodies, nice harmonies and very professional singing, too! Think classic-era Electric Light Orchestra, which apparently was a major influence. Lush arrangements and ecstatic choirs suddenly make sense.

It goes without saying that your perception of this music highly depends on whether you can enjoy this sort of thing non-ironically or the cynicism of our times has gotten you for good. And no, don’t fall under the impression that the whole record is naively over-optimistic either – lyrically this album acknowledges the tough and dire affair that is life, and it does have its share of melancholic moments as well (One Man Show, to name one). The record also features a rock-opera-like mini-suite called When The Fool Becomes a King, which also adds to some slight diversity of mood. However, in the end the purpose of EVERY SINGLE song here is to make you happier and more capable of dealing with the harshness of life. This is a statement of optimism, a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ album, the musical equivalent of a helping hand lent to those in need of cheering up.

Which is the reason I’m actually refusing to rate this album objectively. It might not have the best songs or the best arrangements; maybe it isn’t even good by normal rock and pop standards. Not to mention that a lot of people will probably hate this record for being so at odds with the times, full of almost saccharine sunshine. BUT I happen to have really enjoyed this album, and I want to praise The Polyphonic Spree for their sheer audacity and boldness, for not being afraid of sincerely trying to make people love their lives a bit more. In 2004 this takes balls.  
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THE RESIDENTS – Not Available (1978)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Franco Micale

First, I absolutely won’t comment about the extra-musical aspects, the theory of obscurity, or whatever, as I think it’s probably a put-on.

How to describe it? Hmm, what about this? Imagine Mike Oldfield had gone totally insane right before the first recording session of “Ommadawn” and that might be a nice start. Minimalist synth phrases intermingle with weird voices, tribal-like beats are cut short by Steve Reich-esque signature changes…

The Mike Oldfield comment is not casual, as the ending section of Part One has a repetitive keyboard riff that appears throughout the album serving as a “main theme” of sorts, and it does remind me a bit of “Tubular Bells”. That part had begun with something that I can only describe as “electronic Moros y Cristianos music”, because it reminds me of the kind of music brass bands play in Eastern Spain the festivities that remember the Muslim vs Christian battles in medieval Spain. Which usually resemble Hollywood music like Lawrence of Arabia more than actual Moorish music but you get my drift. Part Two begins with a sax that is treated in the studio to sound like a folk instrument from Hell, segueing into a deranged deconstruction of a piano ballad and then some music that would be great as the soundtrack for a German expressionist film. When you thought that Part Three was going to be almost entirely devoid of interest they manage to set spooky music to an habanera rhythm. The beginning of Part Four sounds to me like a lo-fi version of Air’s “Moon Safari” which again seems to be spliced into a weird Latin-tinged thing. And the album continues with those wild juxtapositions.

In short, here’s an album that I find definitely interesting and might return to, although it does not “resonate” with me, which I don’t think was its purpose anyway. If you find yourself deeply moved by it, I don’t know what that says about you, honestly 🙂

By the way there’s an aspect of the album that brought me memories of my childhood: my grandpa had a Farfisa Matador-R organ from the 70s and some of the tones – and definitely the rhythm box sounds – remind me of it. A lot.

GROUND ZERO – Revolutionary Pekinese Opera, ver. 1.28 (1996)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky


Okay so, something needs to be cleared up before I begin this review. This isn’t an opera. Do not think it is an opera. No I’m serious, things will not end for you if you think it’s an opera. Don’t fuck up and think it’s an opera.

Anyway, Revolutionary Grand Pekinese Opera is an album (read: their third) by Japanese noisers Ground-Zero*, who were an ensemble led by Otomo Yoshihide, who is in my opinion one of the greatest turntablists ever.  The first incarnation of this band was formed for a John Zorn album (Cobra), so that should very well sum up the sound this project has (read: fucking insane). 

Even though I am really big into the harsh noise, free jazz, marching, sound collage and other such territories which this album not only treads upon, but completely steamrolls over, I did not like this album on first listen.  I thought that it was just thoughtless sound collage, no real effort put in, and if there was any, it was quickly squashed by what seemed to be needless fuckery. Really, it was a noise album that was noisy for all the wrong reasons, and it just made no sense at all.

But on further listening, the record began to click, in a way. All the nonsensicalities began to align themselves in such a way that it creates a rather beautiful sonic hellscape. The first opening tracks all sort of build into one huge cacophonous din which has elements of progressive rock, the inevitable noise and free jazz, spoken word, military march, and even classical music. Of course many of these elements occur at the same time more often than not. But all of this gets released into Paraiso – 1, a very dark and minimal melodic piece which is actually extremely beautiful and calm, compared to the rest of the first “movement” of this record, if you will.

The next half of this album is far more free form in nature, but it also incorporates more ethnically diverse music, incorporating free jazz explosions over salsa motifs, and tortured screams over newscasts and the literal assault of a violin. Of course, this half of the album takes the idea of an increasingly cacophonous roar to the next level, going even more batshit than previously, before again ending on an eerily beautiful Paraiso – 2, which ends on turntable noise and a slow fade of an organ playing Disney music, which kind of sums up the record perfectly.

Although I didn’t know until well after my first listen, this is actually a conceptual record about the clash between Maoist China and Western culture. To be quite frank, know that this was the concept of the record greatly enhanced my listening experience on repeats, because the record does reflect those themes when you can pick them out of the mess of sound it creates.

I would say don’t expect to enjoy this album on first listen. You need to give it a few chances for it to really seduce you into its world.

Overall: 7.4/10

VENETIAN SNARES – Rossz Csillag Alatt Született (2005)

Review by: Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

On Wednesdays, I walk a blind friend of mine home from school. A few weeks ago, the main road was far too congested for us to take – cars swelling up on the main road, while children of every imaginable side took up the path, swarming around each other, shouting and mewling, throwing non-threatening punches at each other, which would only lead to her getting irritated and bashing at their ankles with her cane; it would have been a terrible idea through and through – so we take a back road instead, which would have still gotten us to the library she lived above, with a mere addition of 5 minutes to the walk. 

As we are about to cross the road, we lock arms, and I ask her if she is familiar with a musician who operates under the name of Venetian Snares. “That’s a kind of blind. Fairly stupid name for an artist, don’t you think?”. Her reply comes out quickly, seething with dislike. “So you have?”

“I suppose. What I have heard; that album with the Hungarian title” – which is obviously Rossz csillag alatt született – “is not very good; not in terms of the other electronic music i’ve heard anyway. It tries too hard to be dark; do you know what the track titles mean?” “What don’t you like about it? I’d say that the sampling is at least terribly beautiful -“

She tramples a few dead leaves on the pavement and accidentally lurches forwards, then laughs in an impossibly self-aware manner. “Nevermind”. It wouldn’t have been the first time it has happened with her; she is constantly laughing about the incident with the shopping trolley, the countless times her friends have gotten too distracted by their surroundings and let her run into metal poles, and so on and so forth. The list goes on without end, and the various scratches and marks and scars she has from these incidents, cropping up in such unexpected places – a small, barely noticeable line on her right arm running up from the thumb, a notch on her forehead, the slight limp she retains from the time she fractured her ankle – are reminiscent of the jarring unexpected elements of the album, cropping up against a pointillistic orchestral canvas, jarring and ugly and marring what could be thought of as a thing of beauty, completely separate from what it’s meant to be-

which is probably the intended effect.

I think again about the human comparison again. The asphalt on the road is sizzling and the cicadas blare their hideous natural rhythm into the air, where it echoes into the sky, around the buildings, rather like a drone; shrill and staccato, almost like breakbeats. My friend curls her hand around the soft plastic tip of her cane anxiously, and asks me rather curtly what I think about what happened to Allison – of course. She’s a well liked girl, always the shining star of parties, gladly delighting and indulging in drugs, sex, teenage excesses, the things we’re both meant and not meant to do during these years, but she has fallen to the most tragic mistake of all; that of human carelessness, having run into a car a few weeks ago.

Allison’s in a hospital bed at this moment most likely, and her skin has probably lost the thick orange tincture it’s gained from spray-tanning; but she’s surrounded by gifts and flowers and the cards of well-wishers, so she’ll be fine, no doubt. I saw it myself. It’s nothing serious, but there’s something mortifying about the closeness to death; she dragged her fingers along the sepulchre’s lips, kissed its calcified forehead — and that is the truth about Rossz csillag alatt született. For that moment of grim realisation in both her eyes and those of the driver; when she looked up, and aware that she had no hope of getting away, still stooped before the car’s head, and upon impact, splayed upon the bonnet – eyes wide open, mouth agape, with strands of artificially blonde hair, running around and into it like rivers into a sea, as she bent further backwards and onto the shining red hulk of the car, somehow sensing in a vapid way that the hours spent on her eyebrows and eyelashes, and the money spent on her nails – she might be a corpse, but by god, no matter what it took, she’d need to be the most attractive one at the morgue, come hell or high water she would be – before resting tragically upon the car’s bonnet with minor yet grave injury – like a martyr, a plastic religious icon. The impact of something conventionally beautiful, coming to a grave and ugly collision with a metallic monolith, relentless and complex. That is what the album is about, the clashing of delicacy and bluntness. That is the connection I share with it. 

It is such an odd bird, I must not let it fly away.

My friend sneezes. We’re at the library. 

PAT METHENY GROUP – Still Life (Talking) (1987)

Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Lex Alfonso

Pat Metheny Group started out in the late 70s as a vehicle for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny to play in a more typical band setting and have a more regular band unit, with keyboardist Lyle Mears as the main sideman. While Pat Metheny does have his roots in the 70s jazz fusion scene, he quickly left, and on this album the band uses influences from Brazilian music (samba and folk music) as well as pop, rather than rock. This is highligted with the inclusion of the Brazilian musician Armando Marçal, who is featured on percussion and background vocals.

What becomes quickly evident when listening to this record is that it’s not a particularly difficult album to listen to, as long as you’re OK with music that don’t contain any lyrics. ”Minuano” opens the record with some dreamy synths and wordless vocals from Marçal, and it takes almost three minutes before Pat Metheny enters the arena. However, he quickly establishes a quite melodic and catchy theme that fit well with the Brazilian percussion and general feel of the song.

The rest of the record doesn’t stray too far away from this intial sound, though the songs do retain a distinct character, with some being more rhythmic and up-beat and others being more low-key and atmospheric. While some of the melodies and the atmosphere in general may feel slightly cheesy at times and somewhat dated, this never becomes more than a minor nuisance. This remains a jazz album that is quite accessible, while at the same time having its distinct character that separates it from quite many other records. This album should be enjoyed both by people that aren’t very familiar with jazz, as well as most jazz enthusiasts (perhaps with the exception of some purists). 

COLD SPECKS – Neuroplasticity (2014)

Review by: Lex Alfonso
Album assigned by: Mark Maria Ahsmann

Jangly guitar leads. Take a shot.
 
After over half a decade of listening to albums as intently as a guy with no life might, I’ve developed certain Pavlovian responses to things. To wit, a lot of Neuroplasticity triggered an immediate and inexplicable sense of dread and exasperation. I slumped into my seat, blew out a short puff of air and my eyes rolled right around my head as if independently. This record is so ‘2010s indie’ that it is destined to age poorly. Every aspect of it feels like it was taken from another, more successful record. Post-rock guitar leads introduce the lion’s share of the tracks here. Bright synths chug away behind the mix. Vocalist Ladan Hussein croons away, fighting against a beating war drum. By 2014 these traits have been used and re-used so often they’re starting to look like Bill Buckner in the tenth inning. However, like Bill Buckner, it could just be that they’re misunderstood.
 
The real tragedy of Cold Specks is that, for all her unoriginality and for all the routine of it it’s not a bad record. Misguided? Sure. But through its faults it’s actually incredibly difficult to dislike. Be disappointed in, perhaps, but not dislike. It’s the consistency, partially. Consistency is the one trait it chose to be contrary to its predecessors. It’s short, for a start. That’s not the snooty “self-important-critic-who-has-given-up” critique it sounds like, either. I’m not sure when the world collectively decided to shun any LP that dropped below the arbitrary length of 45 minutes, but can we get over it, already? The album is paced brilliantly, each idea and concept present just as long as it needs to before gracefully segueing into the next song.  There is an attention to detail in the way these songs fade in and out that demonstrates a commendable commitment to the LP format. Each song concludes as if momentum is taking its course. Instrument after instrument stripping itself away until the song’s core essence is all that remains, lingering long enough on the palette to make its point before coming to a complete stop. The next track will, invariably, begin in a similar way, layers and depth added as your palette acclimates to it.
 
The record seeks to evoke an atmosphere more purposeful and paced than most of its contemporaries. Cold Specks describes herself as “doom-soul” and it fits. I’m hardly going to lobby for it to be a legitimate genre (I’m looking at you RateYourMusic.com) but when it works it works. The most direct comparison one could make (outside of the 2010s indie canon, at least) is Scott Walker’s pop opus Scott 3 for the kindred intent to favour atmosphere over melody. Neuroplasticity’s compositions seem almost secondary to the production and I can respect that. The melody only exists for the soundscapes to canvas themselves on and to give the voice a purpose. A proper balance might be appreciated by some but in a full length format Cold Specks’ priorities function perfectly well. Long story short, you won’t ever remember a tune from Neuroplasticity but you won’t mind.

Similar apathy cannot be lent to the production, sadly. The mixing is a bit all over the place. Its sole constant is, regrettably, the ear splitting favouritism it shows its rhythm section. If there’s one ongoing downfall to Neuroplasticity, it’s that. The rhythm section is garbage. It does everything it can to sabotage the atmosphere the record attempts to cultivate. It mostly succeeds, tragically. Each snare and each cymbal and each kick screams over the mix like it has something to prove. It shouldn’t be so proud of itself. The drumming is very rigid and awkward and feels purposefully contrary to the music. One would think a producer would want to hide that but, alas, here it is for all to see. It gets to be that in some tracks it’s the only thing you can hear. The only other instrument that even compares in terms of volume is Cold Specks’ voice itself. Certainly more understandable, but so many songs feel like adequate instrumental sections whispering meekly behind a duelling cacophony of soul crooning and drum rolls. The balance isn’t there. For something priding itself on atmosphere there’s really no excuse.
 
In the bigger picture, however, Neuroplasticity fails simply for its lack of ambition. It squanders a perfectly good vocalist and a perfectly good concept on being just more milquetoast indie malaise. Everything about it seems design-by-committee, born not out of a desire to be compelling or progressive, but out of determined artistic counterfeiting. “Post-rock is popular”, it seems to say, “let’s have post-rock instrumental sections.” “Synth-pop is coming back”, it continues, “How about we lead Let Loose the Dogs with some of that?” It’s a shame, too. It’s a perfectly functional record. But that’s just it. Far and away the best track is the last one, because it’s the only one that threatens to have a contrary idea. It becomes comatose, static, foreboding and it’s really rather thrilling. The rest of the album never comes anywhere close to that level of intimacy or depth. It never has an idea as big as “intimacy”. So while you can concede that the craft and workmanship put into it is perfectly fine, you must also acknowledge that it’s also the album’s biggest fault. Maybe it shouldn’t have been “fine”. Maybe it should have had the ambition to alienate or progress or do something that suggests it has humanity. What we’re left with is a beautifully written, beautifully composed, beautifully performed, beautifully sung carbon brick.
 
You might admire a carbon brick, but you’ll never love it.

ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE ATTRACTIONS – Get Happy!! (1980)

Review by: Syd Spence
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

This is the second Elvis Costello record I’ve listened to. The first being My Aim is True, which I thought was pretty mediocre pub rock with a bit of working class romanticism thrown in. For those that don’t know about music movements of the ‘70s Britain, pub rock was a back to basics take on rock’n’roll. Essentially it was glam rock on lager instead of cocaine. Eventually it would get angrier and morph into punk rock, but that didn’t happen to Elvis. No, he sought instead to modernize it with the working class romanticism that Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen were peddling. Given that I thought My Aim is True was boring and middling, what would I think of the reincarnation of Buddy Holly three years later? The answer, BETTER.

In fact I would go so far to say this record is in fact good. It has a nice crisp production with Costello’s voice front and the band in the back. The Attractions sound professional and snappy, though not exceptional, they back Costello well. Elvis continues to mime pre-67 pop music, but this time with a little ska and stax style R’n’B thrown into his poppy pub rock. Each of these twenty songs has a hook, and some are pretty good, like the song “The Imposter”. Most of these tracks are upbeat, but he does vary the mood. Unlike My Aim is True, I was never really bored at all. It was interesting all the way through.

Overall, it’s a good album, with emphasis on the word good. When I was assigned this record, I was told that it was a ‘classic’, and perhaps it is, in the modernize pre 67 pop music side of the ‘new wave’ spectrum, but to my ears, it’s just a collection of good songs that never really transcend pleasant. In other words, I don’t think any music aficionado exploring the totality of rock music would miss out too much for skipping Costello’s work. I will say this, if you are looking for some delightful pop tunes, then this isn’t a bad album to get. Just don’t go in thinking this is London Calling level ‘classic,’ because it isn’t. It is good though, check it out if you like Blondie or The Cars or general pop rock.