North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘music criticism

Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil

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In the second half of the 1960s, Miles Davis put together what’d be known as his second great quintet: pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. As this group recorded seminal albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky, Davis’ music began shifting away from strict jazz.

Throughout his career, Davis was always shifting away from the jazz mainstream. He turned down a gig with Duke Ellington while putting together the nonet that’d record The Birth of the Cool, revolutionizing jazz from stuffy big band arrangements into a compact form: a tightly-knit group that would alternate solos between arranged sections of music. Just listen to Move, a song with a composed head, room for soloing and a finish, with everything crammed into a frantic three minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by M.

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

Arts & Crafts at ten: their ten best releases

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Ten years ago, Broken Social Scene released their second record You Forgot It In People. With some help from Paper Bag Records, it was the first album on the Arts & Crafts label, with the iconic bar of color down the side. The label started as a way to release music made by the band it’s associates, but within a few years it started releasing albums from outside talent: The Most Serene Republic, New Buffalo and American Analog Set, among others.

Soon, it’d become one of the best labels in the country. Known for it’s iconic album designs, high quality of releases and a willingness to try new things; they were doing digital downloads as far back as 2005. While they’re more or less committed to a certain style of indie rock, the label’s made interesting expansions over the years. In recent years, they’ve released the lush acoustic rock of Timber Timbre, the spooky, powerful music of Cold Specks and even managed to land Bloc Party.

As the label turns ten, I’ve offered up my ten favorite records on the label. It’s something of a fluid list: most of these spots are interchangeable, depending on my mood, and on another given day, I might swap one or two out for a few others. But don’t hold that against them: by and large, Arts & Crafts has been steady in it’s releases. There’s only been a handful of albums they’ve released I’d consider subpar and off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any total flops (although I’m probably not going to be listening to Valley of the Giants any time soon). Read the rest of this entry »

The Opposite of Their Name

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The Grammys were on Sunday night, an affair where the music industry rewards the acts who move a lot of product or have stuck around long enough to have cache; even Frank Zappa won a Grammy once and it wasn’t because Jazz From Hell was any good.

It’s a night where the middlebrow, that cruelly overlooked group of artists, get their trophies. Just look at the winners: Gotye, who’s racked up YouTube hits in the 100 millions and hasn’t recorded a fun song since 2008; Mumford and Sons, the folk band of choice for people who don’t like folk; The Black Keys, who dress the part of rock stars and look entirely uncomfortable in the role; Skrillex, the token nod to what the Grammy voters assume kids are into these days.

There was even a few defensible choices: Frank Ocean, Drake, Jay-Z and (somewhat) the Keys, who at least have more chops than Mumford or Coldplay. It was actually nice to see Ocean get rewarded for releasing a smart, ambitious album.

If they got that one right, they got a few disastrously wrong. Taking home the Best New Artist and Song of the Year are the upstarts Fun., a band who has to tell you what they are since their music can’t. In an age of manufactured pop stars, reality-TV based talent searches and egregious self-promotion from has-beens who haven’t gotten the memo, Fun. stands out among the filth. They’re music is banal, boring and dripping with trying to appeal to as many people as possible. They look like an A&R rep’s idea of what cool, urban young people dress like. They wallow around on stage, looking overwhelmed by the idea of actually creating rock and their trophies last night should’ve been the biggest sign of all that the Grammys are worthless inside baseball bullshit.

Dave Marsh once called Queen the first fascist rock band. He argued that “We Will Rock You” was less a command than a statement, in that case, one of domination. In that sense, Fun. is the first Big Brother band. Right down to their name, they exist to tell you what you’re going to have when you listen to them. What they want you to think they and their music are. Their name isn’t a name, a statement or a description. It’s a command ending in a full stop. They’re “fun,” period, and there isn’t anything they want you to do about it.

Never mind that their big hit is a half-baked ripoff of K’Naan’s 2010 hit Waving Flags. Never mind that this Best New Band released their debut album in 2008 or that they’re formed out of the remnants of The Format, who released halfway decent indie pop through the last decade. Never mind that this self-styled indie band’s backed by Warner Bros, through their anonymous-sounding labels Fueled By Ramen. But maybe the Grammys definition of new seems to mean only “new on a major label.”

When Fun. won last night, it meant some actually deserving, and actually new, artists were skipped over. Take Cold Specks, who’s ethereal and downright spooky I Predict a Graceful Expulsion was one of 2012’s best releases. Take Japandroids, who actually rock out without looking like mopey Brooklyn-ites on stage and made music people will listen to in sixteen months.  Take Haim, a talented-as-fuck trio still so new they haven’t released a proper album yet, and still released one of 2012’s best singles on Forever. They’re even signed to a major label!

None of that really matters, though. As far as awards go, the Grammys mean slightly more than the Junos and slightly less than the People’s Choice Awards. After all, they hand them out to any flavour of the month: Bobby McFerrin, Milli Vanilli, Shawn Colvin, Norah Jones. Hell, even Homer Simpson got one. It’s a night for the industry to celebrate itself: reward the acts who sell a lot, help keep some bloated industry giants alive for another year and pat themselves on the back. Let Fun. have the awards. They do a better job of representing their music than anything they’ve ever done.

Written by M.

February 11, 2013 at 4:23 pm

This Is Not A Review of My Bloody Valentine’s M B V

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I think like most self-described rock fans, I was curious about the new My Bloody Valentine album. Over the past few years – maybe even a decade? – there are rumours and talk about whatever their followup to Loveless will sound like and it usually all came to naught. You know the story: it’s coming in a few months, just a couple more, it’s on its way we swear. And it’s pushed back, delayed, quietly slinking away without a word.

This weekend the damn thing finally came out. It’s called m b v (all lower case, with spaces) and it crashed their website within minutes. Maybe because it was the only place the damn thing came out on. So the midnight release date got pushed back to something like 3am London time, mid-evening local, and only then could we all pay $16 for the lossy MP3 download, over $20 for a CD copy and still more for a vinyl edition. It’s a presumptive price: more than both of their albums combined on iTunes or Amazon and for lossy tracks, too. So much for Perfect Sound Forever.

But then, isn’t MBV frontman Kevin Shields supposed to be a sound-obsessed man? Recently, he went back to the 1/2″ master reels to make a new remaster/mix of Loveless. And the new album makes great pains to tell you they recorded on analog equipment. Analog! Even Steve Albini uses digital stuff these days.

The phrase Labour of Love will get used a lot in reviews. So will words like Dedicated and Perfectionist. After all,  Shields is known for his obsessive quest for interesting sounds. It’s why his guitars use strange open tunings, played with the tremolo all the way down and through amps cranked to ungodly volumes. It’s why there are stories about him fretting over amp placement when recording and using something like 30 pedals when playing live.

In a way, every MBV album, even the EPs are part of his quest to find the right sound. Just listen to the progression over the years. On Isn’t Anything, they sound more like actual guitars, but are played with reckless abandon: the chorus of (When You’re Awake) You’re Still In A Dream is a guitar riff rolling out of control. On the EPs, they range between dreamy fuzzscapes (Drive It All Over Me) and fuzzy dreamscapes (Feed Me With Your Kiss). By the time they recorded Loveless, their most famous album, they’d expanded their sound with new textures and sounds, but it was still largely the same old bag of tricks.

The guitars were massive, the vocals were half-whispered and the drums were always there, pounding away in the background someplace. Sometimes everything sounds all screwy, sometimes it sounds like there’s an acoustic guitar added for texture and most of the time, I’m not even sure the vocals are there for anything but texture. I’m not sure anyone’s ever said this as a criticism, but Loveless is one of the most Critic’s Albums I can think of: it’s the sort of thing people will put on a soundtrack if they want to seem arty and hip, the kind of album cool taste makers always keep in eyesight and the kind of thing almost nobody under 20 rocks out to. It’s a fine album and it’s even a fun one in doses, but it’s been praised and highlights and given so many props from so many critics, both self- and professionally appointed, that it’s assumed some mythic status, where it’s the peak of shoegaze and British rock and that whole scene which more or less vanished once Oasis and Blur started putting butts in seats.

So maybe it wasn’t much of a wonder that a followup took so damn long. Music was already changing when Loveless came out in 1991. It hit stores less than two months after Nirvana’s Nevermind came out and in case you’re wondering, everyone under 20 still rocks out to that album. In a burst, alternative rock shifted away from these kind of records and towards the kind of thing Frank Black and Kurt Cobain excelled at: rawer, less polished and infinitely more aggressive, even if their approach to guitars wasn’t all that different (like Shields, Cobain was no stranger to pedals).

Part of the reason Loveless is so beloved by critics is because it was the last of its kind: MBV didn’t have a followup and the scene faded away; Lush, the only other shoegaze band of note, turned to power pop for their final album. So the stories about albums readied, then abandoned, the reunions and gigs without revealing new material and constant promises that yes, the followup was coming, helped give this album its legendary status, the work going into topping it making the original seem more and more impressive. With so much attention paid to a record, making it must have been a daunting task.

So, then, what do we have with m b v? We have an album packed with expectations and hype. It’s in demand enough to crash websites and to charge a premium price for. We have the thing Shields and the rest of the band have been working on for years: if not since the 1990s, then at least over the past few years. And what we have is more of the same: melancholy, throbbing, fuzzy rock. It’s interesting sometimes – I kind of like the warbling guitar on If I Am – but mostly it’s rather dull. The deeper I get into the album, the more I expect some kind of a punchline: people paid upwards of $16 for this?! You mean to tell me it took 20 years to re-create Loveless? Well, I suppose analog equipment can be hard to find these days.

Mostly though, m b v feels like pretension. Just like it’s predecessor, this is an album made for the critics: there’s enough texture, depth and scope here to satisfy two, maybe three editors at Pitchfork, where my sources tell me, one critic gave the album a perfect 10 before going limp and refusing all food and water, craving only another listen of the album. But I find it rather lifeless and tepid: it doesn’t offer much of anything new and when it does, it’s on tracks like Nothing Is, which is little more than a loop played for a minute and a half. That’s a fun trick when it works, but Brian Eno did it a hell of a lot better.

And maybe that’s the best way to really sum this whole thing up: it sounds like something Eno and Fripp would’ve cooked up back in the 70s if they were into taking downers and wine, not occultism and art. But it’s pretty much par for the MBV course: lots of swirling guitars, lots of breathy vocals and, I imagine, a whole lot of praise from the music critics. In the last 20 years, a lot has evolved and changed in the alt-rock community. It’s too bad MBV hasn’t.

Ed.’s noteFlashfact is on “vacation,” as one email put it. And until (if?) it comes back, I’ve moved Mark on Music here. Until further notice, it’ll show up on North of the 400 every Tuesday.

Written by M.

February 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm