Friday, March 17, 2006

In which the Meridian comments on some recently-heard music

I have not posted anything about music in some time, but as a surprise for Mrs. Meridian last payday, I bought her a couple of CDs that I knew she would enjoy and which I have grown to like as well. The third CD is one that I've had for some time but which, until just the other day, wasn't very sure HOW to talk about it.

So as to spare you what you might find to be tedious reading, below is the cover art for the albums I'll be discussing. If you want to Read More, you know what to do.

Gorillaz, Demon Days. There is something a bit odd, if not downright joke-y, about a band whose literal public image is 4 cartoon characters opening an album by singing "Are we the last/Living souls?" And, indeed, if there's such a thing as bubblegum hip-hop, that's also how the song's music sounds--initially. But the song becomes more serious as it goes on, as does the album. The very next song is called "Kids with Guns." The nadir seems to be a song titled "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead," a despairing, on-the-intergalactic-road song. But with its absolutely great dance song, "DARE," it begins to pull out of its emotional nosedive. The dare of "DARE," by the way, is that you just try to sit still while you hear this song that is simultaneously so light melodically and yet so propulsive rhythmically. The last three songs clinch the deal: a really silly narrative read by Dennis Hopper that seems to be based on the Chinese folktale of Monkey, then a Beach Boys-inspired piece that comments on the previous song, then a gospel chorus sounding glorious in a song nevertheless titled "Demon Days."

What to call this musical amalgem? Its home base seems to be hip-hop, but melody is as much a concern in most of its songs as the beats are. It does it no disservice to call it pop.

Jack Johnson, In Between Dreams. If you have seen the cover of Johnson's first album, Brushfire Fairytales--close-up of Johnson in a poncho in the midst of pouring rain, his eyes looking skyward in a sort of wry, "oh, well" look--you pretty much know what you'll find inside: minimalist arrangements of relaxed, funky tunes with playful, intelligent/clever (I'll let you decide) lyrics that, though I do feel that he cares about his subjects, in the end seem to signal a kind of detachment from them. In the grand scheme of things, this too shall pass. Kind of the polar opposite of Joni Mitchell. The one exception to all this is that album's last song, "It's All Understood," a sly meditation on, of all things, how to think about the Bible and its relation to matters of faith, constructed in such a way that he makes pretty clear what he thinks about that matter without your feeling that he's offended you if you happen not to agree with him. No mean feat, that.

If there's a knock on Johnson's work, it's that it can tend to sound same-y. At least it's a PLEASANT same-y-ness. That's why, then, that the first thing I thought when I listened to In Between Dreams for the first time was, "Jack Johnson pimps his ride." I'm borrowing that idea, by the way, from an exchange between Chris Martin and his interviewer on the subject of Coldplay's X&Y: Martin said that for that album the band hadn't wanted to change its sound very much but performed the musical equivalent of adding 21" chrome wheels to it, and the interviewer said, "So, you pimped your ride, then." If there's overdubbing in Brushfire Fairytales, there ain't much--one of its appeals is that it has a very "live" feel to it. In Between Dreams has a fair amount of overdubbing, but it's very subtle--things like Johnson's uncredited, very quiet piano playing on a few tracks, additional percussion, etc. The other changes are stylistic: Johnson's relaxed, blusey vocals are the same, but the album's experiments with country, jazz and even bossa nova made me realize just how much Johnson resembles Michael Franks in both his timbre (Johnson's voice isn't quite as light as Franks') and approach to singing.

Johnson won't suddenly throw us a musical curve--despite his surfer-in-Hawaii cred, I don't foresee Dick Dale dueting with him anytime soon. But what Johnson does, he does very well. I look forward to seeing him trick out his ride some more.

Sigur Rós, (). Long, LONG ago, I posted about the extraordinary beauty of Sigur Rós' most recent album, Takk; I announced that you already wanted this album and just didn't know it yet, and I trust that you have since discovered this to be true--and if you haven't, what's wrong with you? Anyway, in response to the esteemed Fearful Syzygy's suggestion in the comments section that I give a listen to (), I told him that I had just gotten it; he replied, "And?"

Well. For a long time, I wasn't sure what to say about it, aside from the fact that its music is structurally different from that of Takk. Then, in a post this week in his blog (which, by the way, turned 2 this past Ides of March), Mr. Syzygy used the term "post-rock" to describe a band whose music he was describing, and I thought, "Now I can give a reply to 'And?'"

"Post-rock" seems to mean something like "music that does not declare the artist's feelings about something but instead tries to get the listener to do the declaring." If that's right, then I's have to say that () is a prime example of post-rock, whereas Takk is, relatively speaking, more conventional. The title and cover art fit ()'s music pretty well, I think. The empty parentheses, the cover artwork that seems to be a picture of grasses but might not be, the accompanying booklet of blank pages--all suggest that the listener is invited to enter imaginatively into the process of making () signify. None of the songs have titles (apparently they used to, and the enterprising fan can find them); few have lyrics; those that do have exactly the same lyrics, just different melodies for them. Most strikingly, most of its songs consist of a line of melody repeated for the length of the song, with other sounds and instruments added and subtracted like descants in a piece of vocal music. They are more reminiscent of music from a film score than they are more conventional verse-chorus(x2)-bridge-verse-chorus songs. And if the listener wishes to supply the film--and adventurous listeners should want to; Sigur Rós' music has a grandeur to it reminiscent of Pink Floyd and, on occasion, Radiohead that I find intoxicating, especially on long road trips--then this album will work for them. But it does lack the energy of Takk, and I think that's because Takk's songs are, well, structured like fairly conventional rock songs, even if they don't sound like most rock songs (though having said that, I can't help but be reminded of the Hollies' "The Air that I Breathe" whenever I hear the vocals on "Hoppípolla"). Nothin' wrong with that.

Confused? Maybe the links will clear up some of that, or maybe I can in comments. I hope that I've at least made you curious.

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raminagrobis said...

I must say that (_) is my favourite Sigur Ros album, and the one I listen to most often. I realize that's not a popular choice, but I'm prepared to defend it. And not just because I like being contrary.

What you say about the titles/lyrics isn't quite right, as far as I know. The songs are sung in an imaginary language ('Hopelandic'), and the idea is that you will supply your own lyrics according to your hearing of the songs.

In my opinion the opening track on (_) is the best Sigur Ros have done (and the video's fantastic). I tend to read the rest of the album as variations on that theme, but they lose nothing for that.

I liked Takk well enough, but I don't think it has the depth and complexity of Ágætis byrjun and (_). I've hardly listened to it since I bought it.

fearful_syzygy said...

Well, if it's energy you're after, I personally don't think there's anything on Takk... that matches the last song on ( ) [aka. 'Popplagið'; 'The Pop Song' — the unofficial titles are just what they were called while they were working on them, so, rather confusingly, № 2 is known as 'fyrsta']. I'm inclined to agree with Rami (as I did when we had a brief exchange about it on the forum), that Takk... is a slightly weaker album than the last two. It has some good tracks, but there's just something slightly unsatisfactory about it. If ( ) is too nebulous for you — and even if it isn't — I recommend you check out Ágætis byrjun, which I still hold to be their best album, and which also has more 'conventionally' structured songs, with lyrics and everything. I think perhaps it's the latter that makes me prefer it. 'Vonlenska' gets on my nerves a bit, to be honest; I like it when they sing in Icelandic. But for those who don't speak Icelandic, perhaps it's much of a muchness.

raminagrobis said...

Oh, I didn't know that about the working titles.

And I think you're right: for those of us who don't speak Icelandic, the effect is lost a bit, and the transition doesn't really make itself felt. Do you resent that?

Seriously, I wonder if Icelanders really can get proprietorial about their cultural products in the same way that other Europeans do? After all, Iceland seems to have produced more internationally successful music acts than any comparable demographic region (say, Croydon). What's the deal with Iceland?

fearful_syzygy said...

Well, the recent documentary 'Gargandi Snilld' (inadequately and unfortunately translated as 'Screaming Masterpiece') tries to answer your question. I'm not sure it does, really, but it's got some nice music in it at any rate.

As for feeling proprietorial about Sigur Rós, I think the answer is yes and no. When I bought ( ), I didn't know anything about it, and so when I put it on, I was dismayed because I thought he was singing in English. Turns out 'vonlenska' just sounds more like English than Icelandic (I still think the first lines of ( ) sound like 'You sat alone at the fire').

But I also find that the repetitivity of the Hopelandic tracks grates in a way the Icelandic ones don't. 'Mílanó', for instance, gets on my nerves because of the vocals more than antyhing else, and I don't think that would have happened if it had had actual lyrics. The same goes for 'Dauðalagið' (i.e. ( )'s № 7).

Raminagrobis said...

I still think the first lines of ( ) sound like 'You sat alone at the fire'

Heh, I've become accumstomed to hearing the lyrics as: 'you sidle along, the're so suffer, oh no'. But, now that you mention it...

Aunty Marianne said...

The Gorillaz are the product of pure unadulterated genius.

I'm off to find out more about Sigur Ros.