Friday, March 26, 2010


Writing anything about this album is hopelessly silly, as it came out six years ago. That's not long enough to be useful as a re-look review. Clearly, I'm just behind the times. But I think it's worthwhile here, because the target demographic, I suspect, probably missed this one just like I did. Because it's firey, bile-spewing, headbanger prog-metal. I know what you're thinking because I was thinking it myself when I first started hearing buzz about this album: metal is for lifting weights and when the Yankees are winning going into the ninth inning. Keep reading.

"Leviathan" by Mastodon is a concept album loosely based on Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

Sure, not the most arcane literary reference, but if you require your thrasher metal to take the form of full-album-length tributes to classic works of fiction, you can't be choosy.

Taken with that grain of salt (along with the proviso that you understand that metal lyrics will sometimes be somewhat over-the-top), "Leviathan" is perfect. To convince you, I would like to suggest some visualization.

Close your eyes. Now picture yourself as a deck-hand on an early 19th Century whaling boat in the middle of a great storm. Now imagine the weathered captain. Bloodthirsty, obsessed beyond reason with revenge against a creature which is probably mentally incapable of such high-order thought processing. Now imagine the whale breaking the surface and charging the boat.

At this moment, could there be anything more perfect than the following lyrics (sung in a singular guttural roar) from "Blood and Thunder":

Split your lungs with blood and thunder
When you see the white whale
Break your backs and crack your oars men
If you wish to prevail.

From this point on, the album is a relentless tribute to the madness and obsession that drives Captain Ahab. Songs 1-3 are utterly perfect, and they are sequenced perfectly. Not until song six, "Megalodon," does the listener get even a moment of breathing room, and that for only a few seconds. By only by song 9, the sprawling 13-minute "Hearts Alive," does the album begin to wind down; it ends on the subdued "Joseph Merrick." But everything fits together as a singular experience that a properly executed concept album must produce in the listener.

Instrumentally, "Leviathan" is extremely lush and complex, somehow finding a way to blend the primal blood-'n-guts and guitar-shredding that you come to expect from metal with interesting and harmonious orchestration. Like those high points of Metallica's early material, you'll find yourself in the middle of a headbanging scream-fest when suddenly the band changes signatures and blasts forth with the kind of power chord melody that demands to be listened to again.

Really, I can't think of a more perfect metal album. At the very least, anyone who is harboring the preconceived notion that metal is all trash (which it mostly is) needs to hear this album.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Am I Behind The Times?

There's something about music that feels so incredibly current. If you're not on the ball, plugged in, or obsessively following the scene you'll miss it. I suppose you could describe all culture that way, but because I pay more attention to music than to visual art or fashion or film or theater I feel a greater responsibility to know what is now.

But why do I beat myself up, figuratively of course, about not discovering a particular band until well after their moment in the sun or 15 minutes of fame? Why does it matter when I find out about something I like? Do I feel like I missed out on a collective societal experience - a moment in time that will never be recreated? Well, yes.

One way this happens is, especially living in NYC, you don't find out about a band you like until they 'make it' and then it's impossible to get tickets to a show when they come to town (She & Him, Animal Collective, etc etc etc). Or you miss the tour supporting a particularly great album (Of Montreal- Hissing Fauna). Or you don't realize you like a band until they no longer exist (Uncle Tupelo). Or you feel silly suddenly liking a band because you heard them in a commercial and their 'real' fans think they've 'sold out' (this list could go on forever but Nick Drake comes to mind first even though he was dead well before someone put him in a Volkswagon ad).

This is perhaps not the best example but this week I started listening to a Manchester, England based band called Working For A Nuclear Free City, specifically their 2007 album Businessmen & Ghosts. They were on Pitchfork's radar way back in '06 but didn't make much of a splash in the US until '07.

I guess I should give myself a pass on this one - they've been playing in the background (literally) with some songs in everything from video games to movies. But when I heard them for the first time this week I was hooked - I hear an amazing distorted harmonica from time to time, Chemical Brothers-esque electronic loops, shoegaze-y guitars that burst into rock anthem-worthy solos, and some lyrics worth straining to hear. Each song, while contributing to the whole of this massive album, seems to have its own unique influences. (I also think Animal Collective must have been influenced by some of this when they made Merriweather.) Then all of a sudden out comes a poppy drum beat, like on England, and you're bopping your head and toe tapping before you really know what the song is. Love.

Needless to say, I'm now a fan. I discovered them for myself. Am I behind the times? That remains to be seen, but now I know about them and can happily anticipate their new album coming out later this year, Jo Jo Burger Tempest.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

K'Naan - Troubador

In the rash of best-of lists at the end of each year, I always discover something that should have made my own best-of list. This is that album this year.

K'naan is a Somalian-Canadian who emigrated first to New York, then to Toronto when he was a teenager. He didn't speak english when he moved here, but he already had a great love for American hip hop. He raps about his life in Mogadishu, and about the difficulty of leaving a warzone with friends and family still in danger. His biography is very important to his image as a world-wise, self-aware rising star. This would be a fascinating story even if the music weren't so good.

Troubador is a kick in the pants - it's the first new hip hop album i've enjoyed since Tim Fite in 2007, and I've been playing it nonstop. It's ruining the monopoly that indie rock and alt-country have had on my ipod for a long time. The first song I heard was Wavin' Flag, and it's a fantastic song - uplifting and heartfelt like no other hip hop song i've ever heard - but it doesn't begin to showcase K'naan's rhymes. If I had to compare K'naan's style it would be somewhere between Kanye West and Eminem - he truly learned english by listening to hip hop, so he's assimilated perfectly the standard rap cadences, pronunciations, and interior rhymes of the most inventive American stars. The difference is, when he reps the hood he grew up in, it was Mogadishu. Not that suburban Chicago didn't have it's trials and tribulations.

Sometimes, K'naan gets caught up too much in comparing his relatively unassailable background to those of other rappers. He's obviously earned his swagger, and as with almost every hip hop album, it gets tiring to listen to him brag about gun crimes, and offer to take other rappers on a "field trip" to the streets where he was raised. But these moments are overshadowed by songs like Take a Minute where he credits his strength to his mother, to Africa, to the generosity of those who've taught him that if one truly knows anything, it's that he knows "not a damn, damn thing at all."

There are, of course, lighter moments as well, like 15 Minutes Away - where he raps about how much he loves getting money transfers from Western Union, Bang Bang - probably his best rhyme showcase, where he spins a dizzying tale about another dangerous experience in his life, trying a bed a woman who was just too beautiful, and If Rap Gets Jealous - featuring guitar work from Metallica's Kirk Hammet. These moments provide a welcome respite from the potentially depressing subject matter of some of the rest of the album, and the overall feeling is not only uplifiting, it's fun. K'naan grabbed my attention with his biography, but he's really backed it up with his music.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where is our Abbey Road?

I thought this was an interesting article:

Feel free to skip the lower portion of the article, in which the author describes at length the process of his re-discovery of the Beatles. What I thought was most interesting was that the top-selling album of the "aughties" was from a band that broke up 40 years ago.

Well, it got me thinking. Because I have been spending the last month or so listening to new music and trying to come up with my top picks of 2009. Music I'd been told about and music I'd read about. And although I can come up with a few really good albums, I'm having trouble thinking of the last time I heard anything "classic." And when I say "classic," I don't mean something that I think is great, but rather something that I think will be listened to in 40 years and considered with the kind of reverence bestowed upon those classics that I just mentioned. By comparison, I think "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" was great, but R.E.M.'s "Automatic For the People" is classic.

Forty years from now, what will be our "Abbey Road" or "Dark Side of the Moon" or even "Velvet Underground and Nico"?

My preference would be to say "Kid A" or Brian Wilson's "Smile," but realistically, those are far too eccentric to have the mass appeal that a classic really needs.

Incidentally, Rolling Stone has put out their Top 100 Best Albums of the Decade:

I'm sorry, but I just can't really put much stock in a list like this where the top 25 includes 3 raspy-voice Dylan albums; 2 each of past-his-prime Springsteen, U2, and Jay-Z; and one Coldplay. Call me biased (or maybe just hopeful), but wasn't there more interesting music in the last decade than these bands?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ten Years

I've been thinking a lot lately about the last ten years. Not because today is the first day of the new decade (that happens next year), but because ten years ago last summer I graduated from high school. I think it's a truism that in our society the first years out of your parents care define who you become as a person. You fall in love, you embark on a career or course of study, you develop taste, in friends, in food, in pass-times, in art. Since this blog is focused on the latter, that's precisely what we'll do.
The last ten years have been very rich musically. This era, defined indefatigably by the disastrous Bush presidency, has produced some of the most important popular music since rock and roll muscled it's way out of the primordial soup of blues, folk and jazz that defined the middle twentieth century. If you're like me, the last decade's music will stick with you in a way unequaled since Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan stole the Promethean fire from Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner.
Certainly, part of this staying power is owed to the new methods of music distribution and portability that have been developed in the last ten years. Music has entered our lives in a way it never has before. This has led to a lessened appreciation for sustained works like albums at the same time that it has allowed music to easily and seamlessly define our experiences in ways never possible before. We now rely on blogs, intelligent streaming services like Pandora, and prime-time soap operas to influence our taste the way we used to rely on radio and recommendations from savvy friends. We listen to the music we want to listen to wherever we happen to be.
All this has had a democratizing effect on music snobbery. It is so easy to maintain a finger on the pulse of popular entertainment that the shelf-life of anything remotely popular has shrunk to almost infinitesimal. By the time you've had a chance to hear the new Vampire Weekend song, the backlash has begun and no matter how good it is, it's just not cool anymore.
But more than the technology, more than the speed and accesibility of music distribution, more than the proliferation of opinionated snobs, this era has been defined by the building blocks of great popular music: great songs and great albums. From the political ranting of Green Day's American Idiot to the heart-pounding brilliance of Girl Talk's Feed the Animals (just two of the perfect albums that didn't make the list...) music has pushed us to new appreciations of ourselves, our lives, our politics, our emotions.
This is my list of the best popular music recordings of the last ten years, the first ten years of my independent life. The years in which I met my wife, fell in love, lost my virginity, finished my formal education, embarked on a rewarding career, and established some semblance of self were constantly defined by what I was listening to. These songs and albums have followed me where I was going, but more importantly, they have showed me new ways to go. They will be with me for the rest of my life, and are, I think, some of the best and most important albums to have ever been released. If you haven't heard any one of these albums, please check them out:

1.Radiohead - Kid A(2001)/Amnesiac(2002)
2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot(2001)
3. Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of the Bewilderbeast(2000)
4. Bright Eyes - I'm Wide Awake It's Morning(2005)
5. The Arcade Fire - Funeral(2004)
6. The White Stripes - Elephant(2003)
7. Radiohead - In Rainbows(2007)
8. Beck - Sea Change(2002)
9. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago(2008)
10. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah(2006)
11. The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots(2002)
12. Elliot Smith - Figure 8(2000)
13. Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker(2000)
14. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?(2007)
15. My Morning Jacket - Z(2005)

honorable mentions (this could go on forever...)
Neko Case - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood(2006)
Animal Collective - Meriweather Post Pavillion(2009)
Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther(2006)
YeahYeahYeah's - Fever to Tell(2003)
Soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?(2000)