The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

This album is GOD.

I haven’t been back to Optimistic Underground in a while.  There has been a lot going on in life but as always I’m continuously immersed in music.  Lately, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve been listening to a lot of my personal favorite albums in an effort to tap into the exhilaration of something I know I love.  I think I’m also looking for inspiration, and answers.  What elevated these particular pieces of music to a realm of formative life experiences?  These are the albums I used to burrow into for months, knowing every nook and cranny, knowing the texture and contours like my own skin.. and yet they’re a revelation once again with the right mixture of time, decay, perspective, distance, environment and attitude.  It’s probably more than that.  My ears have changed, not to mention my tastes.  Yet the true greats will always have a place; it takes at least time to sort them from the intense but short love affairs with slightly lesser albums.

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One of the most striking moments in my listening life happened the night I heard The Flaming Lips‘ 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin, driving though rural back roads with a friend who had just purchased the CD blindly.  He’d picked up Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and asked if the band was any good; I replied with some half thought that I’d heard “their older stuff was better” without any clue if I was even thinking of the right band.  In response, my friend bought the only other CD available and inadvertently changed my (musical) life forever.  The warbling tape orchestra, the out-of-nowhere bass thunder on the second track, and that melody on The Spark That Bled had me instantly.  I was distracted to the point that I remember images of my stereo, the booklet in my hands, the music and exclaiming about it, and not the drive itself.  The friend wanted a blank CD and I gave him one on the condition that I borrow this new Flaming Lips thing for the night.  I listened half a dozen times before bed.  I scoured the band’s website, where the entirety of Yoshimi and a handful of earlier album songs streamed free (this was extremely novel and rare at the time, about 2002).  I became a total diehard fan in a matter of weeks.

This is all to preface the fact that when I dug through my collection after moving – when the cds and vinyl are all out in the open like that, it’s easier to become excited about certain albums – I had a lurch in my heart toward this album.  I needed to hear it.  My soul was calling to it, or being called.  The next thing that happened was.. despite never having had much of an extended break from hearing it, I was getting the fresh, brightening outlook, rising sun, open chakra, wide eyed feeling all over again, a decade later.  The thing that meant most to me at the time, I believe, was this feeling of new possibilities and opportunities everywhere.  This adventurous, brave, open and attentive nature was overtaking me and my outlook on life literally widened in scope.  It was a confluence of events and life changes, but The Soft Bulletin crystallized that feeling in a single disc I could grasp forever.  It was exciting; all the rough, unnerving bits that hit me by surprise like sudden deer in the headlights became the very signposts for the change I was seeking.  This album is not only different from what the band was doing, what was accepted and loved in pop music, and what I’d been into until that moment, it actually embodies that jarring, eye-popping thunderclap of sudden and real change in life.  The songs each take off like a homemade rocket, reaching space against all odds in some miracle of ingenuity and love.  This is not something I take lightly.

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I came here today merely to share the following documentary but was overcome by my continent of feeling for this album.  I could drift for days on how this makes me feel.  I know it was released last year but I only came upon it during my recent binge and was blown away by the reverence and passion the band still have for this masterpiece.  It not only delves into the nuts-and-bolts creation of the music itself but also dissects a bit of what makes it such a personal touchstone for a certain set of folks.  If you’re already a fan, be prepared to have your nostalgia drive working overtime and keep the album handy for an inevitable post-viewing listen.  If you are unfamiliar, I kind of envy your position.  This is beautiful new territory, and in my view the documentary will make a perfect introduction.

I must note for the diehard fans that the audio used in most of this appears to be from the 5.1 and/or recent vinyl issue of the album.  If you’re as irredeemably familiar with this music as I am, it’ll be a nice experience to get hands on either of those releases and hear this music rendered in a slightly different (clearer?) light.

Thank You, Music (Jesus Birthday Listening)

It will be Christmas in a few hours.  More importantly, it will be my first day off in over a month and I’m getting a head start on savoring the opportunity for a long stretch of music enhanced repose.  I realize many of you will not be reading blogs or spending time online – some of you must have families – but I feel that it’s as good a time as any in the year to express thanks and revel in the great works of sound art that enhance our lives.  Also I’d like to know what you’re spending your equivalent holiday vacation listening to, so reply if you’re interested.

What I’m into this weekend:

1. Rangers – Pan Am Stories

This one is pure six string love, through and through.  The atmosphere is warped tape and spacey reverb and psychedelic compression but the playing is hypnotic Durutti Column inspired tapestries of melodic progression.  Swinging, flowing, building and cresting and never stopping; this feels like tuning in mid-stream to some frequency of guitarist Joe Knight’s brain, no beginning or end.  It sparkles without ever feeling consciously virtuoso, yet remaining far too impolite for wallpaper listening.  Try out mid-album stunner Jane’s Well below.

2. Sepalcure – Sepalcure

The tangentially-dubstep-related duo containing Machinedrum‘s Travis Stewart and some other guy Praveen Sharma burst out of nowhere last year with a couple EPs that balanced any lack of holy shit! novelty with a more than generous dose of holy shit! punch, dynamics, and elastic rhythm and songwriting that made them instant standouts in an exponentially flattening market.  The fact that their debut LP is a blistering collection of tuneful cutting edge productions is as unsurprising as a sunrise but equally satisfying and essential.  Constant streams of ‘aha!’ sampling and percussion flourishes along with skyward bound synth pads and neck-tingling effects keep momentum with the insistent throb of bass that’s always one step ahead of tame; it’s the kind of sound that I can easily become addicted to, listening on every commute for a week.  The fact that it’s nonthreatening is only a detriment to its chances of appearing on Best of 2011 lists (I am working on one, coincidentally) because this is one of the most solid quasi-danceable electronic releases in a long while.

3. Teebs – Collections 01

My love for Teebs is a known quantity.  While his sound is an entire utopian environment unto itself, there is always room for growth and change, even for someone preternaturally adept at crafting beat-bliss pocket symphonies.  Enter his new ‘Collections’ series.  Presented as an odds and ends gathering of sorts, only hinting that it’s less of a mission statement than the debut LP in that the tracks lack consistent segues.  This half hour is more assured and ballsy than anything he’s dropped, loaded with muscular bass and distinct structures.  There’s a tangibility and sense of confidence here which the drifting vistas of Ardour couldn’t sustain over its length, and a wider palette at work.  Collaboration provides a couple standout moments:  Rebekah Raff’s sensual harp showers Verbena Tea with a transcendent light reminiscent of Alice Coltrane, while Brainfeeder newcomer Austin Peralta anchors the sub-bass throb of LSP with twinkling piano loops.  I can listen to this while cooking, cleaning, or paying the rent.  I can enjoy it day and night and often do.  I can share it with everyone with a working set of ears.

4. Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

So I’m still really into this.  Pornographic flights of radiance, as I said.  Something new each time I listen.  In the car, in my kitchen, in my headphones mostly.  How lucky to hear something so new and so addictive and so profoundly, unpredictably gorgeous.  Expect to hear more about this, from myself and everyone else who values adventurous leaps into the unmapped terrain of where our minds and machines can go when pushed beyond what’s known.

Listen to the whole damn album below if you haven’t, already.

I’m badly in need of rest so this post stops here.  I hope to find time tomorrow for more since this is hardly all I’ve been obsessive about.  Remember, I’d love to hear what you are into this weekend and beyond! 

ATTN: unintentional hiatus.

Or: I will not have much opportunity for internet-related anything for the next month, but would love if any of you friendly charitable readers / friends / good samaratins could help keep me up to date on great music still being released in the late hours of this year.

So please, leave a comment here and let me know what you’re into, the triumphs and sure shots and surprise masterpieces I’m missing out on.  I promise to get myself caught up in due time and come roaring back with a vengeance.  This is a time of patience and focus for me, and the words are building up.

For now, I leave you with one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded: After The Flood, by Talk Talk.

I once said “This song is a sentient being,” and I still stand by that statement.

Found A Job

First: sorry I’ve been sort of quiet for a few weeks.

Second:  this.

It’s true.  This one pays far more than my prior occupation so it’s worth the being-busy-all-the-time aspect.  However I have not – cannot – neglect music and thus always have something worth sharing with the world.  Every commute, every bicycle ride, every nighttime book devouring session is accompanied by something new, expansive, exciting…  punctuated by old favorites I find myself doubled over with joy upon re-hearing.  So I’ve got something to say.

Unfortunately I worked my brains out today and must save the in-depth breathless praise and wild exhortations to purchase vinyl for the remainder of the weekend.  I will simply state that there are a few albums I’m quite taken with, continually listen to, and wish that more people would get familiar with.  These are a few of them:

United WatersYour First Ever River

Sensations’ FixFragments of Light

Robert FrippLet The Power Fall

Fleetwood MacTusk

Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

ThundercatGolden Age of the Apocalypse

and finally, with apologies to the artist herself:

Matana RobertsCoin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Colour Libres

Because this is, by some distance, one of the most powerful and heartfelt albums of 2011 and I really should have shared all about it when I got it months ago.  I promise – I swear – I will soon.  Keep an eye on this page, and stay ready for the deluge.

The Durutti Column – “Otis”

Another sleepless night for me…

My favorite guitarist of all time, Vini Reilly, was also a pioneer with regards to sampling in an ostensibly rock context.  His Factory label boss, mentor, and best friend Tony Wilson famously discouraged Vini’s use of vocals in Durutti Column recordings, feeling he was far better at literally every aspect of music creation than singing.  This obviously contributed to his daring and invigorating use of sampling (and later, frequent female guest vocalists), highlighted by this brilliant piece from the center of his eponymous Vini Reilly LP, released in 1989.  A rising arpeggio gives way to a typically gorgeous guitar ramble before the song slides into perfection with recontextualized phrases from Otis Redding‘s (also typically gorgeous) Pain In My Heart and Tracy Chapman‘s heartbreaking Behind The Wall (listen, seriousl) and cements its place in any hypothetical Top 10 Durutti Column countdown.

I must note that, indeed, a far more famous and recent use of a classic Redding sample exists, but Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s same-named Otis borrows far more liberally (and literally) from Try A Little Tenderness…  which I’ve always found quite affecting in a certain other context:

[you basically owe it to yourself and the perennially under-acknowledged Durutti Column to get the album at theDuruttiColumn.com.  Really, get any of his nearly 2 dozen albums.  Anywhere.]

Albums I Missed: 2010

So we all tend to discover some of our favorites of a given year immediately or long after it has passed.  I decided to share mine.  Despite being the first week of January, I’ve already discovered, revisited, and heard enough albums in a better light (courtesy of my brand new Sennheiser 280‘s) to start a list going.  This is the first in a series to unfold for the next month or so.  All I know for sure is that this music is at least as worthy of a listen as anything listed in Best of the Rest 2010, or even Best of 2010.

  • Forest Swords – Dagger Paths

This album I heard once, the moment it dropped.  Despite intriguing me somewhat, it managed to slip to the back of my must list and languished for the rest of the year.  Spotting its placement on several highly respectable year-end lists, I felt compelled to give it another chance.  So thank you, fellow list makers.  Especially my friend at Bubblegum Cage III.  What sets this material apart from the beat scene or the solo-psych-project folks – or anyone else for that matter – is the serpentine guitar work and murky, lived-in feel of every moment.  Lurching beats dangled around thunderous, bassy guitar melodies and an almost tribal, foot stomping ethos, this (frankly) astounding debut sounds like the work of an accomplished veteran, confidently going out on a limb, then rising, rising, rising.  The only direct reference point I have is Gang Gang Dance, live, lately.  Don’t look to their records for anything like this;  you had to be there.  Thankfully that ecstatic experience seems to be just what Forest Swords aims for and achieves on this album.

  • How To Dress Well – Love Remains

Honestly, I kept away from this one out of sheer knee-jerk hipster/pitchfork/etc rejection.  I shouldn’t have.  It’s so much more (and less, in a good way) than what it’s been sold as.  Far more psychedelic than any description employing “r&b” infers, it’s a syrupy miasma of primal notions and half-thoughts, the bits and bytes of heartache and longing twisted up in a melting dream logic David Lynch would be proud of.  This is drone music for the dance party comedown, dance music for the somnambulist, love songs for the fucked up.

  • Shackleton – Fabric 55

So I had the impression that Fabric mixes were simply a series in which an artist makes a DJ mix of other artists work.  Sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re just alright.. but they’re never essential or brilliant like the artist’s own work.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Shackleton mines his own discography, past present and future, using elements of his Three EPs release as thematic glue to bind a striking set of 22 tracks that, to me, is possibly the final word on dubstep as we know it.  One listen through and I’m already confident that I’ll be spinning this more than his prior album – and I absolutely LOVE that album.  This one is simply more vibrant, active, playful.  It shuffles off on an oceanic dub odyssey, seamlessly whirling through almost 80 minutes of depth charge awe.  The fact that I ignored this profoundly satisfying set, from a personal favorite artist, makes my head spin.

If you’ve got suggestions for something I may fall in love with, please leave a comment.  We all benefit from hindsight.  MORE to come…

Best of the Rest of 2010

My Best of 2010 was basically an attempt to carve my musical experience of the past year down to its most essential, most ingrained elements.  An attempt to sum up the music I feel had the largest impact on my listening, on my life.

I left out a lot of great albums.  Thankfully, they were drawn from a text file kept on my desktop throughout the year, chronicling each album I decide, at a given moment, is awesome.  Yes, it’s that simple.  As time passes I remove the fleeting infatuations, anything not holding up.  So I’m left with a solid list I can refer to in search of everything I really, truly enjoyed this year.  This is it, in order I heard them.

  • Bullion – Say Goodbye To What EP

  • Four Tet – There Is Love In You

  • Arrington De Dionyso – Malaikat Dan Singa

  • Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra – Kollaps Tradixionales

  • Autechre – Oversteps

  • Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

  • Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

  • Ikonika – Contact Want Love Have

  • Take – Only Mountain

  • LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

  • Boris – Heavy Rock Hits Vol. 3

  • Connect_icut – Fourier’s Algorithm

  • Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

  • Rollo – 3

  • Yellow Swans – Going Places

  • Sightings – City of Straw

  • Guido – Anidea

  • Lorn – Nothing Else

  • Teebs & Jackhigh – Tropics EP

  • Infinite Body – Carve Out The Face Of My God

  • The-Dream – Love King

  • The Sight Below – It All Falls Apart

  • Deepchord Presents Echospace – Liumin

  • TOKiMONSTA – Midnight Menu

  • Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal 7″

  • Scuba – Triangulation

  • Sepalcure – Love Pressure EP

  • Imbogodom – The Metallic Year

  • Singing Statues – Outtakes EP

  • Flying Lotus – Patter + Grid World EP

  • Seefeel – Faults EP

  • Mark McGuire – Living With Yourself

  • Efdemin – Chicago

  • T++ – Wireless

  • Gold Panda – Lucky Shiner

  • Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

  • Balam Acab – See Birds EP

  • Gonjasufi – The Caliph’s Tea Party

  • VHS Head – Trademark Ribbons of Gold

  • Marcus Fjellström – Schattenspieler

  • Zach Hill – Face Tat

  • Games – That We Can Play

  • Zs – New Slaves

  • Fenn O’Berg – In Stereo

  • Richard Skelton – Landings

  • James Blake – Klavierwerke EP

  • Fursaxa – Mycorrhizae Realm

  • Dimlite – My Human Wears Acedia Shreds EP

  • Kurt Weisman – Orange

  • Clubroot – II MMX

So there it is.  Something to remember is that any one of these albums may end up defining the year as much as the ‘true’ list – and that something I haven’t even heard yet may best them all.  It’s happened before.  This is why Optimistic Underground will soon post its first Music From Before 2010 But Discovered This Year list.  This will cover the much wider range of music I was into this year, since there is already much more music out there than is being released at any given time.

[This post is subject to change.  Like I'll probably add one or two more by January.]