Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kono Michi - 9 Death Haiku

From the liner notes: "9 Death Haiku is a series of songs, each set to a different haiku poem by Japanese Buddhist monks who died in the 18th or 19th centuries, their respective haiku being a final presentation to humankind before making their journey out of this world."

If that isn't the greatest album concept ever...my god. Roger Waters would weep.

A home-recorded paean to Eastern philosophy and Western musical mélange, 9 Death Haiku is everything one could hope for from such a unique and ambitious project. Combining chamber strings, toy instruments, and electronic flourishes with siren song vocals, Kono Michi's debut achieves an intensely psychedelic effect while remaining wholly organic. The result is even more grand than its component influences: classical, raga, gagaku, and downtempo electronica all get fair play in Michi's living room studio. Everything sounds equally epic, from the labyrinthian string arrangements to the explosive percussion to the tinkling piano, while Michi's voice floats above the tempest, delivering insight from her elders in a cadence that is both playful and tightly controlled. The album carries the push-pull dynamic of the ocean, its warm undercurrents giving way to the crash of the surf upon the shore. Much like riding the waves, the experience is all too brief, but endlessly desirable. A

RIYL:
Cowboy Junkies, Björk, Philip Glass

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Virgin Suicides

What can one say about The Virgin Suicides that hasn't already been said? Jeffrey Eugenides's brilliant debut has already attained classic status since its first publication in 1993, an estimation accelerated by Sophia Coppola's exquisite 1999 film adaptation. It is that rare novel which enjoys equal adoration from the critical elite and the public at large, a contemporary heir to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. A parsing of its reviews is likely to turn up such descriptives as "bittersweet", "lyrical", "timeless"; few other works of modern literature evoke such a unique confluence of wistfulness and doom.

Eugenides's bittersweet fable is essentially a Southern Gothic tragedy transplanted into a nondescript American suburb circa the 1970s. The five Lisbon sisters, aged evenly from thirteen to seventeen, inhabit a world of repression and angst whose parameters are defined by their religiously domineering mother and their nebbishy father. Their tale is recounted by a group of neighborhood boys, now adults, whose lifelong love for the girls transforms into an obsession. The sisters' ultimate fate is referenced from the outset, lending an air of dire inevitability to the account of their last days.

After Cecilia, the youngest Lisbon, utilizes the girls' first party ever as an opportunity to commit suicide in front of her family and friends, the neighborhood and school district rush to find an explanation and to offer help to her surviving sisters. Each response seems equally ineffectual, particularly that of Mrs. Lisbon, who uses the tragedy as an excuse to tighten her grip on the remaining girls. Following a particularly scandalous rendezvous between Lux Lisbon and her then-beau, the impossibly named Trip Fontaine, the sisters are placed under house arrest indefinitely. Thus begins the final pathetic spiral downward into the abyss from which none of the girls escape.

In spite of its brooding subject matter, the novel maintains a lyrical air throughout, with prose that often borders on poetry. Eugenides never falters in his delicate touch, purging histrionics from a parable which in lesser hands could easily devolve into melodrama. One of his greatest strengths is his eye for detail, which infuses every scene with a pastoral ambience; the narrative pauses frequently to take into account the numerous changes taking place within the neighborhood, particularly those regarding the Lisbon house. As the girls' quaint Middle American home is transformed into a prison, its exterior begins to reflect the dilapidation within—by the time the house is vacated following the girls' mass suicide, it is little more than an empty shell of painful memories and unfathomable loss. In this aspect, the novel serves as a kind of haunted house tale, with human wreckage in place of lingering spirits. The horrific trappings are indeed present throughout the novel, but remain submerged until the catastrophic dénouement, exerting their emotional toll on the Lisbon girls until they reach their breaking point.

Picador’s new paperback edition of The Virgin Suicides bears a modest white sleeve with an evocative cover image of lackadaisical teenagers lounging in a field of grass. The understatement of the binding is complemented by the the rest of the package: Short of breadth, with larger than average type, it resembles nothing so much as what children refer to as a "chapter book". This sparsity of presentation is entirely appropriate, reflecting the marred innocence of the Lisbon girls themselves. The Virgin Suicides is a precious item, a timeless document of the eternal pangs of youth, a work which deserves to be savored and treasured and shared. A+

RIYL:
Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Todd Solondz, Daniel Clowes

Andy Shauf - Darker Days

Andy Shauf is one of those enviably talented individuals whose aptitude for songwriting and singing is matched by his dexterity with a wide variety of instruments. The homespun folk of his P is for Panda/Hopeless Records debut Darker Days features flourishes both traditional and non-, from the harmonica, xylophone, and banjo of “You Remind Me” and “Let’s Be” to the pseudo-industrial interludes of “Gone”. The album’s understated, handcrafted feel is genuine, having been self-produced over a period of several years in Shauf’s own bedroom, its creator painstakingly recording each instrument separately by himself. However, Darker Days’s lo-fi roots are belied by its pristine sound quality, which presents each element with total clarity, in particular Shauf’s exquisite harmonized vocals. The effect is subdued and elegant, a pitch-perfect blend of folk rock, country, and bluegrass which is effortlessly balanced in its dynamics and achieves an almost psychedelic feel in its more colorful moments. In this, Shauf fits in well with his Canadian brethren Basia Bulat and Rich Aucoin, both of whom excel in charting the outer reaches of upbeat folk pop. This is perfect music for the languid summer days ahead, an ideal accompaniment for a porch swing and a good book. A

RIYL: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne

Enter the Vaselines

In a perfect world, the Vaselines would have been as big as the Carpenters. Borne of a friendship with Glasgow heavyweights the Pastels, the musical ventures of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee (backed by James Seenan and Charlie Kelly) were the next logical step in Calvin Johnson's crusade for the International Pop Underground. Infusing K Records' childlike abandon with an undercurrent of raw sexuality, the cutest couple this side of Timbuk 3 represented the maturation of twee, providing in their three-year career the template for nearly every indie pop band since.

The two-disc Enter the Vaselines is the second Sub Pop compilation of Edinburgh's finest, expanding upon 1992's sublime The Way of the Vaselines: The Complete History. Disc one consists of that superlative collection, tracing the band's recorded output from 1987's Son of a Gun and Dying for It EPs to their only album, 1989's Dum-Dum. Students of classic alt rock will recognize at least a few of these tunes: "Son of a Gun", "Molly's Lips", and "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" were frequently covered by Kurt Cobain, who openly touted the Vaselines as his favorite band.

The deeper cuts on this disc prove just as exceptional as the better-knowns, from the raucous glam of "Teenage Superstars" and "Sex Sux (Amen)" to the heartwarming jangle of "Rory Rides Me Raw" and "Slushy". The Vaselines flew their unique brand of freak flag at every opportunity, penning an ode to H.P. Lovecraft and offering an electroclash send-up of Divine's gutter disco classic "You Think You're a Man". Their punk credentials were verified by "Let's Get Ugly" and "No Hope", while their ingenuous collision of innocence and innuendo was perfected with "Monsterpussy", easily the best tribute to a pet cat since the Shaggs' "My Pal Foot-Foot". The repertoire on this disc is nothing short of indispensable, establishing the Vaselines as major contenders in the alt rock pantheon while keeping the listener longing for more. Luckily, disc two provides on the latter count.

The second half of Enter the Vaselines is comprised of demos and live cuts from throughout the band's career, including several previously unreleased tracks. "Rosary Job" and "Red Poppy" rank among the Vaselines' more precious outings, leaving one to wonder why they weren't included on any official releases until now, while the live performances from Bristol and London provide an electrifying glimpse into the band's reckless cohesion, corroborating the suspicion that their disdain for standard chops wasn't an affectation. These rare live documents may not remain the only way to hear the Vaselines onstage, however: Their current U.S. tour—the first of their career—has stirred rumors of a full-fledged comeback. As Eugene sings on "Slushy", "You'll never miss what you've never had." Here's a chance to see what you've been missing. A+

RIYL: Beat Happening, Tiger Trap, Nirvana, Belle and Sebastian, The Velvet Underground, The Magnetic Fields, The Shaggs

Psychostick - Sandwich

Half a block down from the twin flat shared by Tenacious D and the Bloodhound Gang lies the derelict frat house that Psychostick calls home. Festooned with jester hats and bad goatees, the members of "the greatest band in the world" took up residence in August of 2000 and embarked upon a campaign of terror against their neighbors. Early morning drag races and all-night keggers resulted in anonymous threats and visits from the cops, at which point the band hunkered down and started to record. Their first attempt at writing music resulted in a miscarriage, but they went ahead and sold it anyway, under the title of We Couldn't Think of a Title. A portion of the afterbirth, nicknamed "Beer", somehow made its way onto the XM station Squizz, where it quickly found an audience of like-minded knuckle-draggers. The self-produced video for "Beer" was subsequently adopted by such bastions of culture as ebaumsworld.com and Collegehumor.com, emboldening the band to take a sabbatical from the car wash and enter the studio again. The result of this misguided foray was Sandwich, an album so surpassingly idiotic that it fails even to succeed in spite of itself.

Sandwich could have been good, but Psychostick didn't know the rules. In order for novelty music to work, it must satisfy two criteria: It must never exceed a nominal level of self-consciousness, and it must maintain at least a modicum of listenability. Psychostick falls short on both counts. Their primary fault is that they attempt to operate under an umbrella of ironic detachment, despite the fact that their frat boy mentality is clearly all too real. It's a thin line between clever and stupid, to paraphrase David St. Hubbins, and Sandwich falls off the balance beam right from the start. Riddled with subliterate puns so excruciating that even the fourteen-year-old in me is offended, the album is an exhausting parade of thrice-baked Tenacious D skits, odes to food, and other painfully contrived juvenilia.

The question arises: Why does such pedestrian subject matter yield decent material for such purveyors of the highbrow lowbrow as "Weird Al" Yankovic and the Bloodhound Gang, but not for Psychostick? After all, the Bloodhound Gang's target audience is presumably the same as Psychostick's, and the former's disappearance from the scene has left the latter with a commercial hole to fill. Alas, the Bloodhound Gang's tongue-in-cheek co-option of hip-hop and trog metal always carried an effortless charm, whereas Psychostick's brain-dead aping of System of a Down reads as nothing more than a two-second joke spread out over a 75-minute CD. This kind of thing has been done much better in the past, from the debased sexuality of the Meatmen and Fear to the cartoonish violence of Anal Cunt and Macabre; the only thing missing here is intelligence. Psychostick wants you to believe that they're in on the joke, but the joke's actually on them: Bereft of a sturdy foundation against which to ply their lame attempts at humor, they're just one more stupid metal band. F-

RIYL:
Manually lowering your IQ with the aid of blunt instruments

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

This is the first of four columns in which I will examine the two films which I consider to have been ripped off the most frequently during the last twenty-five years: Koyaanisqatsi and Return of the Jedi. These pictures couldn't be more dissimilar, but their residual effects have had equal influence in a wide array of media.

Koyaanisqatsi is the first entry in the Qatsi trilogy, a collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio, cinematographer Ron Fricke, and composer Philip Glass. It operates as a unique kind of documentary, a pure cinematic experience whose message is delivered solely through images and music. Through a series of expertly devised thematic sequences, the film examines the effects which we humans have had on our environment—in particular, the technological advances that have disrupted our natural habitat to the point of our dissociation from it. In Reggio's view, humanity is a throbbing mass of neuroses, a species caught between the extremes of frenzy and melancholia. His diagnosis is grim, but his solution is clear: In order for the human race to survive, we need to slow down, cheer up, and quit digging precious things from the land.

Considering that the technophobic themes of Koyaanisqatsi have grown ever more relevant in the years following the film's release, it is somewhat ironic that Ron Fricke's technological innovations have proven to be its greatest legacy. His exceptional eye for the inherent beauty in even the most pedestrian of scenes finds its perfect outlet in this film: The background is brought to the foreground, the set dressing transformed into the star. Fricke's technical prowess makes manifest Reggio's unique perspective of the world, transforming throngs of people into a singular entity and imbuing sentience upon natural phenomena.

Barring an introductory shot of an ancient Fremont pictogram and a super-slow-motion depiction of a shuttle launch, the first fifteen minutes of Koyaanisqatsi consist almost entirely of desert vistas, filmed in astonishing panorama with Fricke's peerless attention to detail. The exquisite beauty of such Southwestern landmarks as Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon is conveyed with nothing short of reverence, and is accompanied by an in-flight adagio for woodwinds and brass courtesy of Glass. Apart from the sheer splendor of the locations, the most visually arresting aspect of this passage derives from the time-lapse photography utilized to capture images of cloud formations brewing into existence and racing across the sky. This footage is complemented by slow-motion studies of oceanic tides, gigantic waves crashing upon each other before returning to the swell. The parallel between the sky and the sea is obvious, their similarities made explicit through cross-cutting.

Following this blissful display of the environment in its unadulterated state, we are introduced to the character of man by way of his violent intrusion—specifically, through a rock face demolition. The music becomes darker and more menacing as various vehicles and implements of destruction are paraded before us, exhibiting their handiwork upon the land. Indeed, man is seen as secondary to his machines; the emphasis is not on the individual, but on the changes he brings to his domain. Power lines and hydroelectric dams give way to freeways and landing strips, and the rise in population is reflected in the increasingly cluttered landscape.

After we are briefed on man's domineering spirit, we are treated to a pair of montages which convey his destructive tendencies in ways both eruptive and corrosive. The first sequence is comprised of archival footage of warfare, a barrage of explosions in the sky and on the ground. This is followed by a tour of the doomed Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis, a barren expanse of concrete and detritus which was laid to waste in a series of controlled demolitions. The ideological failure represented by the ruination of Pruitt-Igoe embodies numerous themes of the film: the societal decay reflected in urban sprawl; the human misery wrought by poverty and overpopulation; the myopic folly of our faith in technology. The footage of the projects' day of reckoning initiates the second montage in this cycle, during which we are treated to the demise of a variety of structures, including high rise buildings and support bridges. This battery of implosions and explosions achieves a level of bombast which borders on the absurd, undercutting the gravity of the situation even as it hammers the viewer into submission.

The penultimate, and arguably most famous, portion of the film concerns the collision of humanity that is the modern metropolis. Spanning the United States' biggest cities from New York to Los Angeles, this is the most vibrant sequence in Koyaanisqatsi, and has proven divisive over the years for its portrayal of human beings as mindless automatons. Fricke once again employs his time-lapse technique to speed up the action; however, since human beings move at a considerably greater momentum than clouds, the result is a dizzying blur of activity that resembles nothing so much as a colony of ants in distress. There is a tremendous beauty in this sequence, borne of seeing our everyday interactions in an alien fashion: Escalators and revolving doors churning out people like fodder; shopping malls and train stations swarming with commuters; nighttime traffic coalescing into a single shimmering fluorescent strip. A voyage through America's blue-collar substrata yields footage of hot dogs firing out of an automatic linker machine and Twinkies cruising along a conveyer belt to their destiny; postal workers and tailors complete their work by hand, while the integrants of an auto assembly line move as one with their machinery. It is a symphony of organized chaos, a rapturous ode to the mechanics of capitalism, and it builds to a climax of near-subliminal speed as the whole holy mess is viewed from inside a moving vehicle. The music grows in intensity along with the film, all glittering arpeggios and euphoric chorales, until one feels completely overwhelmed—but at the moment everything reaches a fever pitch, the emergency brake is pulled, and we are ejected into the final stage of Koyaanisqatsi.

It is at this point that we see the effects of such a delirious lifestyle. The final scenes of the film move at a lugubrious pace, providing a sobering respite to the preceding hysteria. They depict human beings as individuals in naked isolation, doing whatever we can to find a foothold what is essentially an indifferent universe. Bewildered old men wander alone amidst the crowds, searching for some sort of direction; firefighters sift through the remnants of a residential inferno, while paramedics assist a vagrant off the street and into an ambulance. Inside a hospital, an elderly patient limply beats her withered hand against her bed until a nurse takes heed of her call and clasps the woman's hand in her own. Such simple interactions are imbued with enormous pathos by Fricke's delicate framing and Glass's elegiac choral arrangement, and the film closes with an upward gaze: the footage of an Atlas rocket on an unmanned test flight. As the rocket soars through a perfectly blue sky, it slowly veers off-course, then explodes; the resultant cloud of debris plummets slowly back to the Earth. The self-destructive nature of human society could hardly be more eloquently stated than through the visual analogy of a flaming piece of shrapnel spiraling downward against a flawless backdrop, an image which freezes on the screen before dissolving into the same pictogram which opened the film. This transition from fiery destruction to ultimate renewal segues perfectly into the admonitions posited by the Hopi, the Native American tribe from which Koyaanisqatsi derived its title. The Hopi prophecies which provide the film with its coda prove to be wholly prescient, warning of the dire consequences which await those who allow their own hubris to supersede their reliance upon the Earth. It is a message which remains as urgent today as when Reggio first pleaded his case for a saner world almost three decades ago.

Sonos - S/T

Few recent trends exhibit pop music's ongoing campaign of self-cannibalization more distinctly than the cottage industry of ironic cover bands. The concept is sound: Take a well-worn tract like Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer (pound it, Easy Star All-Stars) and run it through the pedalboard of multiculturalism, so that the end result maintains a level of familiarity while offering enough novelty to appeal to both classic rock fans and jaded hipster intelligentsia. The Vitamin Records label has met with considerable success in recent years by offering string quartet tributes to artists that bridge the gap between mainstream and underground, including Nirvana, Radiohead, Tool, and the Pixies; Rockabye Baby! Records has carved out a similar niche with artist-specific albums of lullaby covers. Elsewhere on the map lie novelty bands of the Hayseed Dixie and Dread Zeppelin variety, with Christopher O'Riley's solo piano explorations taking up residence somewhere in the vicinity of the Gary Jules cover of "Mad World". One of the more unique musicians to have joined the fray is Petra Haden, whose brilliantly arranged solo a cappella renditions of such chestnuts as "God Only Knows" and "Don't Stop Believin'" (along with an extraordinary reimagining of The Who Sell Out) have provided a timeless twist on songs that by all rights should have been clobbered to death by mainstream radio a long time ago.

Enter into this sub-subterranean enclave another a cappella act, this one a sextet of collegiate choral kids who go by the collective handle of Sonos. The gimmick herein is all kinds of clever: Marry the vocal charm of Petra Haden with the sonic innovation of the Vitamin String Quartet, then apply it to the current crop of Pitchfork darlings and package it as the middle ground between Starbucks and Amoeba. It is a concept almost too savvy to work, but it succeeds in every way, by virtue of the sheer talent of the assembled singers and the ingenuity of their arrangements. Throughout its relatively brief running time, Sonos's eponymous debut manages the daunting task of transforming already stellar material into something equally great, while remaining altogether original.

The album begins with a single voice. The first few bars of opener "White Winter Hymnal" actually bear a striking resemblance to those of "Mining For Gold", the ghostly first track of the Cowboy Junkies masterpiece The Trinity Session, but around the 23-second mark, Jessica Freedman's lilting soprano melts into a three-part harmony, and the Fleet Foxes' Celtic-tinged folk pop is transformed into a sunburst of delicately interwoven melodies. Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place" is given no less stunning a treatment, with each singer being fed through at least one effects filter in an attempt to match the sonic extravagance of the source material. The stylistic leap isn't at all jarring; in fact, the contrast between the two tracks helps to define the scope and ambition of Sonos's debut. From the R&B-tinged interpretation of Björk's boreal epic "Jóga" to the weightless shiver of Sara Bareilles's "Gravity", the album as a whole heralds a new frontier in vocal music, a revitalization of classical techniques by way of studio wizardry. Ben McLain's awe-inspiring beatboxing in particular steals the spotlight on several tracks, swapping spit with what sounds like an MPC sampler and cranking out whirr-click fast enough to make your head spin.

Sonos is already blazing up the indie rock charts in L.A., and their upcoming appearance at SXSW is sure to provide ample momentum for their first tour, which kicks off in April. The album itself drops on March 31st, and I suggest you rush out and buy it before everyone else at the coffee shop gets to it first. It won't be long, mark my words—time has come for revenge of the chorus nerds. B+

RIYL:
Petra Haden, Pitchfork.com, barbershop