Archive for music

Music Review: Actress – R.I.P (2012)

Posted in 2012, Music, Review with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2012 by liffeymusic

Many artists have multiple levels of depth — say, an easily noticeable coating of production gloss with a more edifying layer of songwriting beneath for those who choose to dwell longer.  In the case of Actress (aka Darren Cunningham, London-based producer and founder of the Werk Disks label) , these layers are separated by a rather daunting chasm; it’s quite easy to nod your head to the rigorous Maze, or the space-born Purple Splazsh (both from Splazsh, 2010), but neither are readily catchy enough to engrave themselves into a listener’s mind without their knowing consent.  There’s nothing so convoluted about the music that the inner workings can’t be sensed to some degree even by the uninitiated, but Splazsh intimidated with rigidly uniform beats, which were both a source of tactile immediacy and a stern palisade that blocked entry to the depths of the world within to many saunterers by.

R.I.P removes those bars in favor of a pane of glass, through which one might peer and from a distance observe a foreign plane of existence, one with ant-like order and business mindedness.  Sounds trickle, mesh and reflect, sometimes with strict purpose and sometimes seemingly at random, like the colors of a holographic picture which you can never quite seem to view from the perfect angle.  It’s by far his most abstract work, which oddly enough causes a rift in the expected structures in a way that allows for a shifted point of view and a deeper, more fascinating glimpse of Cunningham’s work as a whole.  This new-found transparency may be shocking to those accustomed to his old work, but it puts a new perspective on the multi-faceted world of engineering that he’s methodically revealed over the past few years.  This brings up a distinctive characteristic of Actress’s utopia — he never gives away whether he’s discovering it right along with us; if he is, he’s taking it all in as though he accepts this new residence with inhuman levels of contentedness.  As a result, we never feel that anything is underdeveloped or out of place.  This is how the music was found to be.

With the heavily techno-derived beats now largely eroded, what’s left are techno songs trapped in an ambient body.  You can clearly see the veins below the skin, but as Cunningham casts various lights upon the flesh, cools and warms scatter beneath the surface, abstracting all perception with a spellbinding effect that, when fully taken in, refuses the listener permission to look away.  This amoebic layer of flesh only occasionally thins enough for the club-ready beats to claw out, and even then they remain dripping in alien innards so thick, they defy such a utilitarian mindset.

New listeners might observe that these tracks don’t seem to have a destination or possess any story-like sense of progression.  Many of them simply fade in, relay an idea or image, and fade back out.  And that’s precisely the point.  They are not tales, and there is no agenda.  They are artifacts, fragmented viewports whose very existence indicate that there is a story to be uncovered, but will require of the listener careful-minded reconstruction.  They do not exist to move you.  You exist to project movement into them.

Does that makes this a masterpiece, as many might be eager to declare?  No — or at least, it’s not meant to be.  It’s simply the next step in a spiritual exercise for Cunningham, and for us, the third window into an electronic psyche that pulsates with a life as devoid of recognizable emotion as it is filled with soul-searching duty.  It doesn’t try to lead you anywhere, because it doesn’t even care that you’re there.  You might very easily walk away and remember only the fact that a novelty candy shop exists, or you may linger at the glass a while longer.  There’s an endlessly observable civilization carrying on inside.  Study it.  Absorb it.  Occupy it.



Music Review: Menomena – Mines (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags , , , , on July 21, 2010 by liffeymusic

Menomena don’t exactly defy genre, but they draw influence from such a wide pool that it’s hard to compare them to any certain acts. They’re a rock band of course, but when you dash in all the little extra details and instruments, it becomes more and more difficult to pin down. This is true of Mines more than any past Menomena album, and as a result it’s their most satisfying and, I would expect, most enduring album yet.

The first thing that strikes me about Mines is the level of detail. Menomena have always been fine craftsman, but they take it to a new level here. As remarkable as the amount of detail is the quality of the production; I don’t know know that I’ve ever heard an album featuring so many layers of sounds without ever letting them smudge into each other. If you aren’t already sporting high-end headphones, this is the sort of album that will make you itch for a pair. It’s impossible to take in all the details with only a few listens, and the songwriting is the most challenging that Brent has offered yet. It’s not a difficult album to enjoy, but it undoubtedly has the highest payoff of any Menomena album thus far.

One negative result of the less accessible songwriting and deluge of details is that this album doesn’t deliver some of the straightforward hooks that the previous album, Friend and Foe, offered. There’s no “Wet and Rusting” here, nor are there any tracks to match the vicious “The Pelican.” This a little bit of a turn-off at first, and even though it’s pretty easy to get over this issue, it still would have been nice to have a couple songs that more emphatically establish themselves as single material. Also, despite the enormous level of activity on the album, there are a few brief areas, such as on the appropriately named “Sleeping Beauty,” that won’t vie for your attention if you’re not already offering it.

However, there is no need to worry that Mines is merely attempting to disguise hook inadequacy with studio tricks; this album has it’s own set of teeth. You probably won’t remember the vocal lines to “BOTE” at first, but the badass slide guitar and punctuated brass (which is way too easy to sing “ME-NO-ME-NA!” to) will echo in your brain long after the track has ended, and after the instrumental bombast has drawn you back for several more listens, the vocals begin to worm their way into the mix. Before you know it, you end up with a highly addictive track that is engaging on several levels. Menomena use this strategy throughout the album. You’ll probably repeat “TAOS” to sing along about not being the most cock-sure guy, but a barrage of big band layers will soon shift your attention, remaking it hard to choose whether to sing along or take it all in.

The music is never goofy, but it’s easy to tell that the band mates have a sense of humor and a willingness to indulge in quirks. Thankfully, they also have the intelligence to do so in ways that support the follow of the album and keep the listener fully engaged rather than for indulgence’s sake. The aforementioned “TAOS” and “BOTE” offer the highlights as far as volume goes, but there are plenty of well placed mood shifts. “Lunchmeat” and “Dirty Cartoons” share some of the minimal, post-punk tendencies of Friend and Foe, while “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” and “INTIL” offer potent moments of tension, build-up and release that avoid the common pitfall of feeling inorganic and forced into being epic. “Five Little Rooms” touches back to a borderline ska element of Menomena’s past that is a bit more subdued for the most part on Mines.

Mines does a very admirable job of advancing Menomena’s sound to new territories both in terms of mood and technical proficiency without, for the most part, forgetting what made past albums endearing to so many. If I Am the Fun Blame Monster and Friend and Foe left room for questions, Mines should alleviate any doubt; this trio has managed to create and master a sound that is truly their own, and for that they undoubtedly deserve a new level of success.

Score: 8.8/10

Highlights: “TAOS”, “BOTE”, “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy”, “INTIL”

Music Review: Stars – The Five Ghosts (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags , , , , on July 15, 2010 by liffeymusic

Long time emotive devotees Stars are back with their follow-up to the consistently satisfying, if a bit too vapid, In Our Bedroom After the War. Although Bedroom wasn’t their most critically acclaimed effort, it found Stars in a pleasant groove that offered up several moments of gratifying potency, and in light of the more recent and excellent Sad Robots EP, Stars fans had reason to keep their hopes up for their fifth LP, The Five Ghosts.

Whether said fans are happy with The Five Ghosts will depend largely upon how committed they are to Stars’ creamy, soft-as-silk sound; as it turns out, a healthy dose of commitment will be required. In an age when synths are beginning to replace (if they haven’t already replaced) the guitar as the pop/rock building block instrument of choice, Stars’ increasing reliance on synths makes their already derivative brand of silky pop sound even less gripping. That is absolutely not to say that Stars cannot make a brilliant synth based song; for that you need look no further than Sad Robot EP’s “Going Going Gone [Live].” Unfortunately, inspired moments run far too sparse on The Five Ghosts, which stakes its life on fans being hungry for more of the same. To make matters worse, lead singers Amy Millan and Torque Campbell, who usually play off each other quite well, seem all too aware in their deliveries that this album is going through the motions.

There is a saving grace to be found in the fact that Stars make good filler, and none of these songs are particularly weak or out of place. Even the off-kilter “We Don’t Want Your Body” justifies itself with a peppy chorus featuring lines about cheap ecstasy and boughten sex. The album does feature its share of highlights, most clearly the soapy “Changes.” “Wasted Daylight” and “Fixed” are accessible picker-uppers that could’ve held their head high on any Stars album. Stars shyly poke at a few new ideas in the latter half of the album, and although none of them really take off, they’re engaging enough to save the album from becoming too sleepy. For the most part you have to be in this for the sound of the songs mores than the songs themselves, but I’d be remiss to give the impression that the album lacks any redeeming qualities.

The Five Ghosts is by no means a bad album. In fact, in the grand scheme of things its probably above average, with several songs that make it worth revisiting. However, when a band such as Stars offers plenty of moments of promise throughout their career but fails to bring it together in a complete statement, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed. If you haven’t tried Stars yet, The Five Ghosts will give you a perfectly adequate sampling of what they’re all about, but long time fans know that Stars are capable of much more than “adequate.”

Final Score: 6.8/10

Highlights: “Wasted Daylight”, “Fixed”, “Changes”