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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.

Kendrick Lamar – Real

I’m real, I’m real, I’m really really real.

I’d heard a single or two from Kendrick Lamar over the past year, and knew I liked his voice and style but never bothered to grab his Section.80 mixtape.  So anyone else who’s heard his official debut good kid, m.A.A.d. City can imagine how completely my hair was blown back in surprise: his bravura storytelling prowess, easy-like-falling cadence, all-star lineup of peripheral talent behind the mic and mixing boards; most of all, the entire album comes together in a cohesive narrative which completely justifies the subtitle of “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.”  The spoken interludes are not only enjoyable but essential to wrapping the entire package up.  Presented as a series of voicemail tape recordings from Lamar’s mother while he’s out on the town in her borrowed minivan, the final episode unfolds within this song, flipping aspiration to inspiration and leaving a lump in my throat.

Whether it’s the Erykah Badu-like hook and bouncing beat or the way “love” acts as a prism through which several verses are refracted, something about this track in particular allowed it to burrow under my skin and seal the wound from inside.  Since Lamar is such a gifted storyteller this almost feels like a spoiler to share a song near the end… but it’s too good to keep to myself.  If you haven’t heard the album yet, do yourself a favor and try possibly the best major label release I’ve heard in years.

There he is, eating cereal and sporting what looks like the exact haircut I had in 1991.

You can grab the album on Amazon, but I’m waiting for a vinyl copy.

Diamond Terrifier – Kill The Self That Wants To Kill Yourself

Having already introduced Diamond Terrifier here, I’ll strike the heart of the matter: Sam Hillmer’s debut solo album is one of the most transcendent pieces I’ve heard all year.  Simultaneously an abstract yet tactile experience, Kill The Self That Wants To Kill Yourself is dark and beautiful and weirdly refreshing.

The first sound heard on the titular opener is a warming synth pad straight from Brian Eno‘s playbook.  Dream sequence, loving eulogy or triumphant reunion; it’s a lifting wind over which Hillmer solos to melodic catharsis.  Arresting in its direct simplicity, this track eases us into the unshackled gravity of romantic disorientation.  Slipping on a shattered cloudy fabric Oneohtrix Point Never might wear, he never lets the human presence or real instruments drift out of mind.  As the album deepens it never loses grip on the tangible reality of its construction: guitar, handclaps, cymbals and the commanding saxophone are practically visible, yet even the drone swells and programmed drum bits crackle and hum right before me.  There is so much life stabbing outward from the perceptual dervish at the center of this album.  Kill The Self That Wants To Kill Yourself, beyond being one of the greatest titles ever, feels like the beginning of a new fruitful path for Hillmer.  I just hope this doesn’t preclude growth (and future albums) in his main band.  Zs are, after all, one of the most interesting bands I perpetually neglect to share.

I will rectify this.

Here’s a track from the album.  Like I said yesterday, it works best as a single piece..  this is still great.

Buy this at Northern Spy.  As I said before, they are quick with help and priced beyond fairly.

For fans of: Zs, Don Cherry, Fennesz, John Fahey, John Coltrane, Sun City Girls, Coil

Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

In this first post of 2012 I proudly present my unabashedly belated yet wholeheartedly enthusiastic response to a slice of sound that has not only dominated my listening time for months but brightened my outlook for an important piece of the future of music.

Black Up is one of the best hiphop albums I’ve heard all year (the year being 2011 but it doesn’t matter), possibly longer.  I slept on this at first, honestly, because the name just seemed too hipster, too pitchfork, too much.  I pictured a thousand chillwave and witch house bands lined up behind triangles and crosses, a sea of stoned faces, limpid whitewashed guitar and anonymous lazy beats.  I pictured nothing interesting or worthy of my time, much less my money.  I did not picture something this fucking good.

When most people think of a hiphop artist the vocals come first: style, cadence, and timbre to subject matter and storytelling.  The sheer blunt force of the words themselves, inseparable from voice, embodies a delivery system of surface and substance.  Crushing the underground binary of either transcending or subverting this natural order, Shabazz Palaces blow hair back with pointillistic dexterity and canny substance while folding the vocals into the dreamlike puzzle box instrumentation itself.  Beatific slides like “It’s a feeling, it’s a feeling!” and “Clear some space out, so we can space out” are amplified by the very way they emerge through cloudbusting moments of clarity in the mix.  The production is the most intricate and interesting I’ve heard in an impossible stretch of time.  Huge and futuristic and swarming like Cannibal Ox (one of my all time favorites) but delicate and minimal in places, sometimes in the same song.  Relentlessly kaleidoscopic on a track-to-track basis like Madvillain and equally playful.  Taking each second as an opportunity for left turns, trap doors, and extraterrestrial launches like the best Flying Lotus material.  I’m uncomfortable reducing this experience to references but they help paint a picture.  Thrilling, gorgeous, head nodding and hypnotizing, worthy on its own as pure sound yet never subsuming the oft-poignant vocals, the meaning of Black Up is delivered fresh and phonetic, kinetic, poetic.  I sink deeper, hearing more each time.  Romantic, political, angry, meditative, militant, optimistic, futuristic, this blurs free-association and laser focus in the same moment, words and sounds in the same experience.

The duo of Ishmael Butler, of classic conscious/jazz-hop group Digable Planets (listen if you possess even a passing interest in A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, or Del La Soul; they’re probably better) and multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire (of whom I’ll be honest: I have no idea where he came from), is an alchemy I’ll forever thank Sub Pop (of all labels) for bringing to my ears.

My first favorite track.

Possibly the most direct distillation of the group’s ethos, with an outright nod to the original Digable Planets album in its ascendant coda.

The full album streaming free with visuals on youtube.  Nice.

I should be so bold as to say that this is the equivalent of Disco Inferno (a longtime favorite of Optimistic Underground) for the hiphop galaxy.  I don’t state this lightly.  I also do not often insist so fully on a vinyl purchase but in this case I must spread the word on its inner beauty: the package does not resemble the semi-anonymous visual you’ve seen floating around the internet and the top of this post.

[pick this up via Sub Pop or Amazon or Insound or Undergrounghiphop and thank me later for helping you find one of the least recognized masterpieces of the past year or so]

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.

Albums I Missed: 2010, part 2

Here’s another set of essential 2010 albums unfortunately left by the wayside.  Witness their excellence.

  • Mark Van Hoen – Where Is The Truth

Beauty.  Just, pure fragile beauty.  Floating like a spiderweb made of static, hung with fragments of shattered dreampop.  Van Hoen, who started out in Seefeel and ferried the shoegaze & idm Locust through the next decade, knows a thing or two about prismatic blissouts.  Being unfamiliar with his past solo work, I won’t remark on how this is a more personal statement or not; I will simply say that, as a *huge* fan of Seefeel, a longtime admirer of Locust (especially Truth Is Born of Arguments – an essential document), and an eternal seeker of alluring disintegration, this album hits the spot.

  • Solar Bears – She Was Coloured In

Being taken in by the line that their name is inspired by a certain Tarkovsky film and the fact that they employed old school synths in a more pop-friendly framework than Oneohtrix Point Never or Emeralds, I nevertheless held this one at arm’s length upon first listen.  The tones grabbed me, the melodies held me, the sheer variety kept my attention from wandering, but I was stopping short of truly absorbing it.  Second go-round, I realized it’s not made to dissect the individual tracks or feel around for a signature invention, something groundbreaking to hang its hat on.  This album is one to sit back (or walk or ride or whatever) and take in all at once.  Much like Teebs’ utopian fever dream Ardour, this 50 minute excursion is built carefully out of vignettes highlighting different facets of the sound until a wholly rounded picture is formed by the end.  I can hear Blade Runner and The Neverending Story and even the Terminator at times, but I can also sense the instructive warmth of Boards of Canada, fellow Scots with a penchant for playfully distracted, unpretentious psych explorations.  Where else would we find songs titled Head SupernovaPrimary Colours at the Back of my Mind, and Neon Colony?

  • Girls – Broken Dreams Club EP

Well this one snuck up on me.  I was never a fan of the debut LP, which swam in a torrent of praise in 2009.  Some songs caught my ear but the band simply didn’t hit those pleasure centers I need to truly enjoy an album.  Playing this lengthy EP on a blizzard bound morning while making pancakes turned out to be a shining revelation, and an arresting listen.  Moving beyond their Velvet Underground, jangly garage sound into the realm of earnest, intelligent, well written pop infused with more than a little  grit and gravitas, the band has officially released one of a literal handful of rock albums which I can admire, adore, and really sink my teeth into.  Biggest highlights are the title track, a stoned lament for the fractured state of our world today, and Caroline – a tune which steps out of any boundaries the band previously ruled, into pure psychedelic wanderlust.  It reveals itself slowly (at first echoing The Smashing Pumpkins‘ deep album cut Porcelina of the Vast Oceans), unwinding like a scarf caught on a fence, until it’s stretched to the point of abstraction and hanging in the air around you.  A cloud of a hazy rock dream, tugging upward.  A great way to end an album and point to an even brighter future for this duo.

Lil B – The Age of Information

Here is the Based God with some truth.

Lil B started truly blowing up in 2010, releasing literally hundreds of youtube tracks and more than a handful of more-excellent-than-not mixtapes, each full of absolute gems which cannot be missed.  Unfortunately the deluge of material tends to intimdate the uninitiated, especially if they play a random track or two and find themselves baffled or recoiling at what they perceive.  I myself finally caved sometime in the summer and was taken in by the surreal wordplay and exquisite, twisted beats (or ambient soundscapes) his words are married to.  I was intrigued and drawn in, but always with more curiosity than love – until The Age of Information changed my mind.

This one combined some of his most prescient and observant lyrics with a laid back, psychedelic compression worthy of any spaced out Boards of Canada acolyte, orbiting a classic piano line dropping anchor for the heavily drifting wordplay.  Speaking of our generational disconnect with each other, with history, with the wider culture itself, he’s sharing thoughts imbued with far more earnest grace than originality; it’s the heartfelt truth of a young mind grappling with the very internet culture which has enabled his meteoric rise.

About that rise:  watch out for a lot more from this prolific and talented artist in the coming year – full length Angels Exodus just dropped at Amalgam Digital, and its (supposedly) massive follow up Glass Face is soon to follow.  I’m also putting together a mix, soon to appear on this very blog.  Keep your eyes peeled.  And check out Lil B at last.fm for the latest discussion and links and all that.

Brock Van Wey – White Clouds Drift On And On

Brock Van Wey took a headfirst leap off the end point of dub techno last year into the oceanic swells of ambient bliss on this first album under his given name.  Instead of crashing into the waves and sinking, the man usually known as Bvdub simply took flight and never looked down.  This is White Clouds Drift On And On.

Let’s start at the cover art; talk about evocative.  That image, combined with the none-too-subtle title, sufficiently hints at the feelings unleashed by this album.  Opening with a melodic beckon skyward, White Clouds eases the passage from the paces of reality into pure atmospheric headspace with it’s most concrete segment.  Once at cruising altitude, that cover art truly delivers on its promise.  Piano, synths, guitars and the hiss of soft spoken digital percussion are treated with gauzy abandon.  Everything expands in all directions at once, infiltrating and taking over all sense of place and time.  Vocals flit in and out of the mix and are seemingly heard before they appear, yet register only once they’ve gone.  More than a quarter of an hour can slip away in the blink of an eye, with only the fleeting silence between tracks reminding of the outside world.

Each of the six excursions come on like a nagging thought, stealing focus away from whatever is at hand.  Novel elements build upon the notion, expanding to fill the entire consciousness.  The immediate surroundings completely dissolve and an internal journey has begun.  Only the end of this album can now serve as the hand on my shoulder to shake me to attention.  You know how this ends, like a transportive dream after waking.  Something profound was felt, but the details are lost.  Thankfully this transcendent experience is a tangible thing, available for replay as soon as the listener is ready.

Covering a strange land where the nations of Basic Channel and Quantec overlap with Arvo Pärt and Terry Riley, Van Wey departs heavily – but not unexpectedly – from his solidly minimal, dub techno background.  Instead of moving laterally, he’s simply found a higher ground, and that deep foundation remains.  Thus, fans of anything from Fennesz and Tim HeckerStars of the Lid and Windy & Carl, to Gas, Loscil, and Deepchord Presents Echospace, to  The Caretaker, William Basinski, Black to Comm [see my take on Alphabet 1968] or even my recent favorites Oneohtrix Point Never [see my love here], need to pay special attention here.  I wouldn’t go on a name-checking spree if it weren’t necessary, so here’s the deal:  This album accentuates all that I love about these profoundly varying artists and their sounds, yet never succumbs to their respective gravities.  It weaves between, above and below, insular in its movemnt and pulsing with a life all its own.  I like the notion that when a dream is over, a whole world ends.  That’s how this album feels, every time.  I mean that in the best way possible.

One of the most unique aspects of this release is the presence of a second disc featuring a full album deconstruction by producer Intrusion (dub techno wizard  Stephen Hitchell), mirroring the dream like a bent parallel universe.  Keeping true to the ethos and atmosphere, the percussive dub feel is heightened to an almost head-nodding level while the billowing atmosphere is drenched in cavernous echo.  Built on a descending order of the original six songs, this set brings us full circle by the end.  It is truly a reflection, a perfect accomplice, urging the body to follow the mind.

Despite having since moved back to making records under his former moniker, his music shows no signs of reversing course.  Bvdub‘s new album The Art Of Dying Alone, out on perfectly complimentary label Glacial Movements, is the obvious next step beyond White Clouds.  In other words, keep up with the man.  He’s conjuring something special.

[unfortunately out of stock at most vendors, forced exposure and soundfix seem able and willing to spread the love.  buy this if you can.  by all means.]

Are We Still Married?

Created by the singularly iconic Brothers Quay, this breathtaking video for one of His Name Is Alive‘s earliest singles rockets the term subjective understanding to new heights.  What is it about?  Do the visuals reflect the lyrics?  How about that ball of light?

The Brothers Quay are a set of identical twins whith a body of work exemplefied by short form masterwork Street of Crocodiles, which has been hailed by filmmaker Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time – the most intriguing bit of praise this writer could imagine, being a deep seated fan (and occasional entrenched defender) of Gilliam’s art.  Instead of regurgitating what can be found on wikipedia and elsewhere, I’ll simply extend my affection for this form and admit that I’m both held in rapture yet slightly repelled by the brothers’ creations.  Creepy and spiritual, dark and warm, with empathetic arms wrapped around all that is neglected and forgotten in the world and our hearts, this is the stuff we only wish Tim Burton were still aiming for.

[the Brothers Quay Collection, a dvd from Kino Video, is out of print. fortunately the Phantom Museums collection is easily obtained through amazon]

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