1998 feels like a million years ago, maybe because it was the last year that I felt like a child the whole year. I turned 12 and I remember the University of Kentucky Wildcats winning the national championship in men’s college basketball, which made me so happy.
1998 was also the year that I realized that I liked to read and write. Amazingly, I probably read more books that year than in any year before or since. I remember tearing through “The Lord of the Rings” in a week, reading seemingly half of Stephen King’s corpus over the summer and eventually getting into Tom Clancy and Charles Dickens in the fall.
That year was also the year the movie “The Big Lebowski” was released. I didn’t see it at the time, but it has since become one of my favorite films. I won’t attempt to add to the body of criticism about it – in part because I’m no longer in the business of writing reviews – and I’ll only add that I have a physical copy of the screenplay that my brother for some reason picked up off of a vendor in Manhattan. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie’s plot or legacy, just check out its IMDb page sometime.
Anyway, throughout the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character – nicknamed The Dude – indulges in many stereotypical stoner-hippie habits, from smoking marijuana to listening to a distinctive combination of Creedence Clearwater Revival (while driving stoned), whale songs, and – for some reason this always bowled me over – a cassette tape labeled “1989 league semifinals,” which is just the sound of bowling balls striking pins. The Dude is no “Rolling Stone” or Pitchfork.com critic.
Outside of “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Bridges has had an interesting relationship with music. He starred in “Crazy Heart,” for which he won an Oscar for portraying a country music star, singing many of the songs from the film’s Academy Award-winning soundtrack. He released his own eponymous country album in 2011. This year, he released a follow-up of sorts called “Sleeping Tapes.”
The album is presented as a sleep aid but it is far too funny and unpredictable and experimental to serve as one. One of the more memorable numbers early on involves him explaining how he likes to hum while getting ready to act and that his makeup guy get a kick out of the tunes he hums. He then hums out the word “hummm” for several minutes in a surprisingly tuneful, almost vaguely Goa trance-y way. It’s like a Frank Zappa album that’s actually humorous.
There are lots of spoken word pieces, including one called “The Hen” in which he explains that a saxophonist he knew used to keep eggs of Silly Putty in his pockets and so acquired his avian nickname. The music, as it is, goes in and out, with some piano and what sound like Tibetan prayer bowls and other typically New Age instruments.
In the centerpiece, the 11-minute long “Temescal Canyon,” he wonders aloud if he and the audience should just be crows that could fly over the canyon. He sees a hiker, think he’s probably named “Steve or Neil” and shouts out to this “Neil” and gets a wave back, happy that his guess about the hiker’s name was accurate. He then ruminates on how “freeway’ is a great word.
As the album wraps up, Bridges muses about the relaxing sound that water makes when it fills up a toilet tank. So, back to “The Big Lebowski,” which of course has an early scene in which a character is dunked in a toilet to make him talk. It feels like “Sleeping Tapes” is life (it presents itself as a window into his daily routines) imitating art, with Jeff Bridges taking on the persona of Jeffrey Lebowski to narrate and, well, hum his way through an album chock-full of the New Age mysticism, fake philosophy and distinctive voice intonations that made Bridges’ character so memorable.
It’s almost like an audio-only sequel to the movie. During the last number, he says “you aren’t asleep yet?” and recommends replaying the album which I’m pretty sure won’t help anyone doze off. I listened to it twice today already during a walk through Forest Park in Queens and figure I’ll be coming back to it many more times, sleepy or not.
In America, the term “think tank” has connotations with the hard right. The words “conservative think tank ___” often preface a sobering news story about why it’s such a great idea to cut taxes on the 1% or keep the minimum wage well below $15 USD
I don’t know why Blur – not an American band, certainly – chose to entitle its 2003 collection of world music and nervous breakdown freak-outs Think Tank, but to this American, it has delicious irony. In track 0 (I’ll explain in a minute), guest Phil Daniels even says: “This is England, this ain’t America for fuck’s sake.”
The Iraq War had just started when Think Tank was released. Blur’s Damon Albarn had worked with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja and others to protest against UK involvement. The songs on Think Tank obviously predate the conflict, although they came to life in the geopolitcally tense years of 2001 and 2002, when Afghanistan was under siege and planning for Iraq was underway.
Blur also lost guitarist Graham Coxon during this time, and rather than replace him they continued on a trio. In light of the band’s growing directionlessness on 1999’s 13 and its forgettable “Music is my Radar” from 2000’s Best of Blur, though, the change was welcome. Blur could finally stop trying to be Pavement or the anti-Oasis.
Think Tank is nothing like the rest of Blur’s catalog. It has Moroccan instrumentation, sax all over the place, two of the longest songs the group ever recorded, and only minimal guitar. Nothing on it seems like a single, from a band that once released a whole box set of them.
I remember Think Tank as the last album that mattered to me as physical item, for two reasons. First, its artwork, done by Banksy, was a pleasure to hold and look it. Second, its U.S. CD version also had a pregap track – a song hidden before track 1, that could only be discovered by rewinding the CD from the very start. It took me 3 months to figure out it was there. We’ve lost a lot in the transition from LPs and CDs to MP3s and Spotify.
That track, “Me, White Noise” changes the entire album’s flow and message. Rather than start with the squelching “Ambulance,” the journey begins with some sneaky, not-quite-house rhythms and the surprisingly cynical commentary of Phil Daniels, who 9 years earlier had provided the classic narration on “Parklife,” one of Blur’s most memorable songs.
It’s one of the only Blur songs to contain profanity, and it’s stuffed with lyrical gems, including “so you look at the wall and what does the wall say? ‘i ain’t a mirror, fuck off!'” It slinks and snakes through almost 7 minutes, rising to an echoey, multitracked, frenetic chorus (“You’re boring!”), and then retreats into the opening squalor of “Ambulance,” only after Albarn has been reduced to ranting and Daniels to talking about how he’d use a gun if he could get one.
The rest of the songs aren’t nearly so aggressive, although “Crazy Beat” (the weakest number by far – almost an alternative take of “Song 2”) and the delightfully desertified “We’ve Got a File on You” stand out for their upfront mixes. Most of the tunes are subdued, but their subtlety shouldn’t be mistaken for sameness. Blur touch upon African-influenced pop (“Caravan,” “Out of Time”), free jazz (“Jets”), funk (“Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”), trip-hop (“On My Way to the Club”), and Primal Scream-esque tails (“Brothers & Sisters”). There’s also “Good Song” and “Sweet Song,” both of which live up to their titles by snaking through various chord and arrangement changes.
Overall, Think Tank feels like a dream of peace intermittently interrupted by flashes of nightmare, from the NSA/GCHQ paranoia of “We’ve Got a File on You” to the post-everything wasteland of “Me, White Noise.” Even the roughness of “Crazy Beat” and the haze of “Jets” show a creeping panic at the edges of the album.
By the time it all ends with Coxon’s lone contribution on “Battery in Your Leg,” you’ve probably forgotten that Blur made it through the previous 13 tracks without him. The song’s interplay of Fripp-like guitar textures and piano is quintessential 70s and as such in step with the album’s other Bowie/Eno/Clash touchpoints.
But it’s Think Tank’s awkward flow that endures. Its transitions from quiet to loud, from commercialism to introspection, and from one genre exercise to the next, is unified by its desert atmosphere and strange anxiety. That makes Think Tank quintessentially 00s and as good a representation as any of the the Iraq War’s impact beyond the battlefield and on culture.
Primal Scream once entitled a song “Bomb the Pentagon,” before 9/11 happened. By 2002, it had morphed into a mediocre stomper called “Rise,” and the legendary Scottish band was never the same.
See, from 1999 to 2001, Primal Scream were angry and politically prescient. That’s a rare combination, a glass of ice water in a hell of Rage Against the Machines.
Plus, despite their name, The Primal Scream (as they were dubbed on records from this period) weren’t/aren’t always a noisy band. Prior to the 2000s, they were most famous for an LP called Screamadelica, which was chock-full of gospel rockers and slight synth plinking. I never got into it, but it was a seminal record in the UK house scene and it set the stage for Britpop’s subtle mixture of rock and dance. The group followed it up with a terrible, Stones-y album of boogie rock with the Confederate battle flag on the cover (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up).
XTRMNTR was the anti-Screamdelica. Just look at that opener – “Kill All Hippies.” The moment when the synths finally kick in after the sample dialogue intro is one of those Album Moments (like the first drums on Nevermind, or the opening notes of “Come Together” on Abbey Road) when you know that something good is underway. It’s loud, it’s ballsy, and it sounds good, without the excessive dynamic range compression that makes so much music unbearable.
I got XTRMNTR in the mail on a rainy day in early 2003, when I came home from school after vomiting in the hallway outside history class. So I got listen to Bobby Gillespie shout “sick, sick, fuck” at the end of “Pills” for the first time while actually sick. This album will always be with me, having engrained itself so vividly into my mind and my body on that January day.
11 years later, what sticks with me about XTRMNTR is how it manages to be both catchy as hell and, improbably, a proper assimilation of jazz (one that’s not stuffy or rambling at all). “Swastika Eyes” has a melody and bassline that cannot be forgotten (and that production! Jagz Kooner pulls his best saber of paradise for this cut) – try going around humming it some day and see what kinds of reactions you get (it’s an anti-fascist song, but easily misunderstood out of context). It’s only minutes separated from “Blood Money,” which is just about as good as a rock band can do in getting to 1970s Miles Davis. Then there’s MBV Arkestra, a jazzed-up remake of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” from 1997’s Vanishing Point.
What kind of band could make “autosuggestion psychology/elimination policy” a hummable couplet with first-rate musical backing? One with a first-rate cast. In addition to the core members, Primal Scream assembled a who’s who of 80s and 90s rock and electronica – Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Gary Mounfield (The Stone Roses), The Chemical Brothers, half of the Two Lone Swordsmen (Keith Tenniswood).
XTRMNTR has its foot on the pedal the whole way through, except for the peaceful respite “Keep Your Dreams,” which is easily the most gorgeous song they’ve come up with. It’s anger, but versatile anger – in addition to the aforementioned edgy jazz, there’s scuzzy distortion rock (“Accelerator”), bass-driven nightmares (“Exterminator,” “Insect Royalty”), angry faux hip-hop (“Pills”) and something that defies all categorization (the awesomely futuristic “Shoot Speed Kill Light”).
Even though I’m a writer by trade, I often give lyrics a pass when I review music. But here, Primal Scream does real work with its words. Look at “Exterminator”:
Gun metal skies
Exterminate the underclass
Exterminate the telepaths
No civil disobedience
This album came out at the height of the U.S. dot-com boom (early 2000) and on the eve of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and its lyric sheet can be read as a compelling document signifying that the blissful 1990s were finally over in the West.
I didn’t place it in that context since I didn’t listen to it at all until 2003, but looking at it now I can see it as not only a commentary on the violent currents running beneath the peace and prosperity of the 90s, but as a predictor of the recent age of inequality. “Exterminate the underclass” has been the implicit goal of years of policy on both sides of the Atlantic, while “no civil disobedience” is the unwritten slogan of an era in which politics are brushed under the rug of subtly normative concepts like “innovation,” “solutions,” and “disruption.” Even the seemingly throwaway “English high-rise” has economic undertones, plus added weight in light of the growing movement for Scottish independence.
Later in 2000, fellow Britons (for now) Radiohead released Kid A, which topped numerous best of the 00s albums lists and was heralded as the Last Real Album (I think this claim is hard to quantify). I didn’t hear Kid A until after I had spun XTRMNTR countless times, and Radiohead’s “masterpiece” sounded so slight in comparison.
It wasn’t just the sound quality and production and songwriting, either – it was the entire approach. Kid A has been lauded for its commentary on pre-millennial angst and the vague “computer age” (picking up the torch from 1997’s OK Computer), but it’s basically a blank canvas that isn’t political in any discernible fashion. XTRMNTR isn’t specific enough to seem dated, yet still not so generalist that it ends up meaning all things to all people. If we’re discussing the scarier implications of an age of robots, automation, surveillance, advanced AI, and big data, it’s worth it to look at them as political creations, with human authors seeking fame and money, rather than immutable forces that just materialized out of the ether.
Primal Scream did that in a way that Radiohead didn’t. But that’s the least of XTRMNTR‘s merits. Listening to it again yesterday for the first time in years, it seemed fresh, and angry in an evergreen way that so much angry music – which is almost always exhausting – isn’t. Keeping the dream (alive), indeed.
Kentucky is blue, and not just because of the countless shirts, caps and jackets adorned with the colors of the University of Kentucky. The grass is blue in select parts of the Bluegrass State. Down along the EST/CST divide near Greensburg, the sky over its knobs is azure well into the night.
La Roux means The Red in the English. I first heard both of The Red’s albums in The Bluest of states, Kentucky, five years apart in different towns.
La Roux’s 2009 debut was a labored nod to the 1980s, an attempt to bow politely in spite of one’s rogue quiff and stiff suit. Its “Bulletproof” improbably blared out of the blue on the speakers of a Lexington bar, while I drank Old Rasputin and chatted with two mathematicians. My blonde hair stood up just like ton the album cover.
Its hooks got under the skin, but aside from opener “In the Kill” and the pouting “I’m Not Your Toy,” no other song on the self-titled LP registered. Listening to it sober was no different than hearing it inebriated; one long, sub-Working for a Nuclear Free City haze, the Reagan/Thatcher years filtered through the “Flashdance” soundtrack rather than The Stone Roses or Grace Jones.
It was the typical 2009 pop record given that just like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (remember “Bad Romance”?) it was basically one monster sleek single, surrounded by material that was consciously retro. Just as Gaga mined Queen, La Roux excavated deep Eurythmics and Duran Duran album tracks.
While on vacation in Kentucky last week, I sat down and listened to La Roux’s belated follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, in one sitting, which I hadn’t sadly done with any other album in more than a month (the last being Deadmau5’s spectacular While 1 2). The sky was clear, there were clinking bottles or talk of real analysis in a crowded room; down home sapphire paradise gave Paradise a rapt audience of one.
The first thing you notice about La Roux’s sophomore effort is the guitar. The rhythm playing on “Uptight Downtown,” by Elly Jackson herself (now the sole proprietor of the La Roux enterprise,) imparts a muscularity that would have seemed gauche 5 years ago, amid all those cold, maudlin synth lines on La Roux. The six-string is a mainstay throughout, and Jackson’s scratchy rhythm playing is sometimes complemented by intricate picking.
Its momentum, started by the opening guitar work, never subsides. The production is open and spacious, with ample room for echoey Caribbean tones and full-bodied guitar, bass and drums. It’s a bit more 1970s than 1980s, with shades of Van Dyke Parks’ silly Discover America in particular and an AOR vibe in general – even the deep cuts are hooky. This is Rumours for synthpop.
“Kiss and Not Tell” (are you getting the clever titles yet?) throws a ton of shit into the mix – piano runs, synth-like guitar, guitar-like synth, prominent bass, multi-tracked vocals (Jackson’s voice is much better utilized here than on La Roux), and yet it never sounds dense. There’s room galore for all that Caribbean (Hawaiian? oh yeah, “Hawaiian breeze” – there it is on “Paradise is You”) air. The music is tight yet there’s space all around.
With the first two tracks so taut and thrilling, the third track, “Cruel Sexuality,” swoops in to loosen things up. For a while, anyway. It takes a left turn into a catchy chant midway through and then slowly weaves the original hook – also memorable – back into the mix. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night?” could be a sentiment for the album’s song structure transitions and balance of breeze and bravado.
There is some sameness throughout, which Pitchfork noted in its somewhat negative review. “Sexotheque” (again with the titles!) uses the rhythm guitar + synth + tropicalia formula from “Kiss and Not Tell,” but it has its own fantastic hook (the same goes for the epic “Silent Partner,” which one-ups Flock of Seagulls). Jackson’s vocal hooks help differentiate these songs. She even dredges up a Grace Jones sample to give extra smokiness to the already sultry “Tropical Chancer” (my favorite of the album’s wordplay titles).
And look at that: there are a mere 9 tracks on this album, with no Best Buy/iTunes/digital exclusives, remixes, or bonus discs. It clocks in at only 41 minutes; it could be an LP! There are two tracks more than 5 minutes long, with one over 7 minutes long. This is a classicist album from an artist who half a decade ago seemed like just another post-album singles act. I hope the next one isn’t five years off.
The album: From LP to SoundCloud
The album as an art form has been under escalating artistic, economic, and political pressures for decades. Since the decline of vinyl LPs in the 1980s, creative possibilities such as themed sides or run-out grooves were lost, swept away by digital audio. Bonus tracks, remixes, live versions, the whole lot were appended to already exhausting CD run times, producing an experience that was increasingly at odds with the ideal of the album as a digestible, coherent statement. It was the musical equivalent of every novel suddenly becoming Infinite Jest (that is not a compliment).
The CD was overtaken by the MP3, a simple file with no close association with any larger artistic system, at least not in the same way as a vinyl groove or a Red Book audio track. The MP3 could go it alone, be shoved into a playlist with anything else, mislabeled (the early days of Napster sent one Pitchfork writer for a ride by labeling old Pavement material as Weezer’s then-unreleased Green Album), or shuffled off onto an iPod or smartphone.
Now even the MP3 is bowing to streaming services such as Spotify and SoundCloud. Music has become something to experience, not own. In this sense, it has come full circle, returning to its millennia-old state as something that individuals and groups absorb in a continuous stream, without the discrete packaging of an album or single. The key difference, though, is that the user has more curatorial power than ever – it took the decline of the album to make everyone her own album producer and sequencer.
As someone who listens predominantly to albums, I have found the music industry’s direction over the past three decades dispiriting, but also liberating. What’s telling about the most shift to streaming is that it appears to have affected EDM more acutely, and earlier, than rock or even hip-hop.
The idea of an artist album in trance, house, techno, or any EDM field was always a lot different than in other genres – an artist might go years, producing tons of remixes, mixtapes, and podcasts, without putting together a “proper” album of original, deliberately sequenced music. Look at Sasha and Michael Cassette for but two examples. EDM artists, it seems, were just waiting for the consumptive and technological breakthroughs that would turn their habits into freeform yet stamped listening experiences enabled by the likes of SoundCloud and Pandora.
Deadmau5: At the frontier of the album’s evolution
No artist in EDM has been as publicly and repeatedly conscious of the genre’s complex relationship with form than Deadmau5. His albums, if you can call them that, have all born cheeky, inscrutable titles, from Random Album Title to <album title goes here> to For Lack of a Better Name. None of them were what a rockist might think of as an album, often recycling previously released material and using segues to disguise an absence of cohesion. Deadmau5 himself has also been at the center of recent debates about authenticity in EDM, a blanket genre going up against decades of rock-centric critical skepticism of electronic music’s value.
Leave it to Deadmau5 to expose one of the core contradictions of EDM: while mixtapes and similar media are often continuous, with one song fading into the other, this seamlessness does not play the same role as it does in rock, a genre in which the segue (think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper) is often a way of making a Big Artistic Statement. In EDM, it’s just mechanics – an experience might run through all sorts of disparate songs, but still keep the listener gripped with nice transitions. Mat Zo’s “Mat Zo Mixes” on SoundCloud, which span drum ‘n’ bass and Anjunadeep releases, exemplify this exact ethos.
There are plenty of EDM artists still dedicated to the album experience, though. Above & Beyond’s recent Acoustic release is an example of a trance artist taking up the classic rock trope of an unplugged set to confer seriousness and artistic depth. Now, Deadmau5 himself is on the eve of releasing a double album with a cute C programming-inspired title and 25 tracks that he claims represents the first work that he’s made that can “even be called an album.”
Is Deadmau5 injecting traditional album design into the anti-album EDM world? Earlier this year, he purged his massively popular SoundCloud feed. His albums have been getting progressively more immersive and deliberate, with 4×4=12 and <album titles goes here> both showing the traces of long player logic despite their castoff titles.
While(1 <2): Deadmau5’s Biggest Statement So Far
Deadmau5’s latest album, While(1 < 2), is both his most forward-looking and old school effort. It has more genre exercises than ever before – minor-key piano interludes, contemplative acoustic guitar, vocoder experiments, and 90s/early 00s alt-rock angst – to go alongside some of the most distinctive hooks (“Phantoms Can’t Hang,” “Avaritia”) of his career.
Its unmixed version, clocking in at an astonishing 139 minutes, resists flow and momentum, almost deliberately. There’s a remix of the ancient NIN track “Survivalism” right next to the piano balladry of “Silent Picture.” Hook-drenched opener “Avaritia” segues into the barely-there “Coelacanth I,” which yields to a remix of How to Destroy Angels’ “Ice Age.” While the influence of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is undeniable – both in Deadmau5’s apparent love of “The Social Network” sound track and in the two Reznor-related remixes that sit next to the 20+ originals – While(1 < 2) has even more in common with Aphex Twin’s 2001 oddity Drukqs, another double album chock full of discrete genre exercises from drum ‘n’ bass to classical (the unforgettable Avril 14th became the basis of Kanye West’s “Blame Game”).
Strangely, While(1 < 2) becomes an album through this resistance to the easy segue and undifferentiated experience of the mixtape and, one could argue, of latter-day rock and pop albums, which have taken the coherence mandate of Sgt. Pepper and its successors to the extreme, by making everything sound the same (uniformly loud, vaguely dance-y, consistently exhausting). The tracks on While(1 < 2) each call out for individual attention – why else put the title-says-it-all “A Moment to Myself” as a prelude to the upbeat, hookier “Pets”? Yet its epic length, by willfully tempting short attention spans, begs for it to be put on in the background as something that doesn’t have to be touched for more than 2 hours. It can demand careful attention or mere acquiescence, depending on the listener’s situation. Time to have another go at it.