Friday, March 27, 2009

Musica Hauntica Nostalgica

Welcome to the fourth installment of my occasional blogging on music (to follow the trail back to the others, and the philosophy behind all this, start with More Music of Late). I figured it was time. Since my last post, my music library has grown by over a hundred tunes. Here's a survey of the best finds in the lot...

The Black Angels. Haunting. Dark. Eerily groovy. Kind of like a 21st century version of The Doors, if The Doors were weirder, more disciplined, and slightly rednecky (but in a cool way). Try "18 Years," "You On the Run," "Better Off Alone," and "Bloodhounds on My Trail" for the best. Futuristic Doors? Oh, yeah, Postmusical baby!

Siouxsie Sioux is back! That's right. The Lovecraftian goddess has gone solo in the 21st century. And boy is that a good thing. With Mantaray she's put out her best album ever, even scoring a major hit single (in England...she's too weird for Americans, but honestly why wouldn't "Into a Swan" rock here?). Apparently the Banshees are done for. She recently divorced Budgie (the genius percussionist who made her duo with him as The Creatures something brilliant), I suspect because of his infidelity (if any of the songs on her new album are autobiographical, that is--yeah, there's a hint of f-you in there, indeed the whole album has such notably creative percussion scoring I suspect the whole project might be a delicious "Haha I can do this without you!" kind of cudgel to the crotch). If you like The Creatures or even the Banshees, you'll love Mantaray (which sounds like a marriage of both). Especially such eerie strangeness couched in musical brilliance as "Sea of Tranquility," or the kick-in-the-face glam cabaret "Here Comes That Day." But "Into a Swan" is the track that rocks most.

If a Futuristic Doors and Siouxsie Sioux revival aren't Postmusical enough, check out Vitamin String Quartet. Yes, that's an actual string quartet, as in unplugged chamber-style "hey, isn't that supposed to bore the sh*t out of me?" music. Only, this won't. Because they play heavy metal. That's right. Judas Priest. AC/DC. Metallica. They take classic heavy metal tunes and string them up. And I have to admit, it's pretty brilliant. This isn't sappy elevator music. And believe me, hearing Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin" in an elevator once was a rather laughable experience for me. No, this is something quite different. It's actually quite moving and excellent, as good as any film score.

And then we do another Postmusical 180: Duffy. I discovered her on the Graham Norton Show (on the BBC) before she became all the rage here in America. She sings an amazingly original retro-motown sound, like, so early 60s, man. And as with many British hotties of late (Amy Winehouse--before the Great Emaciation; Joss Stone--before that awful skin-destroying tan), she's as white as mayonnaise, yet sounds "like, oh my god, you're totally black!" You've probably heard her stuff tons already, since she's everywhere now. But this is one case where popularity does track quality. "Distant Dreamer," "Stepping Stone," "Rockferry," "Mercy," are simply masterpieces in the genre.

Entirely different yet again is Katie Melua. Imagine Randy Newman, except (a) she can actually sing, (b) she has actually heard of an instrument other than the piano, (c) she's nice to look at (I mean, compared to Randy Newman, who isn't?), and (d) though her songs are just as sappy and you can't take too many of them in succession or you'll go into a vomitous diabetic seizure, they are actually a lot cleverer than Newman's, in both lyrics and music. Normally I loathe eye-rollingly sweet love songs (I mean, like, gag me with a spoon). And that's pretty much all she does. But she's so good at it you can't not like her stuff, at least on occasion. It's folksy and catchy. Try "Nine Million Bycicles" and "If You Were a Sailboat" to see what I mean. In one way she reminds me of
Tom Waits or The White Stripes: quite brilliant, not at all similar in sound, but sometimes you have to shelve the stuff for a few years before listening to it again, yet that triannual listen is worth it.

Then we get Paul Weller. He's a strange cat. Most of his stuff is really not my thing at all. And yet scattered amongst his catalogue is an occasional gem that's so
surprising and unexpected I wonder where on earth he comes up with his other stuff, which sounds nothing like it. Check out "Night Lights," "Light Nights," "One Bright Star," and "Song for Alice." If he did more work like that, I'd be a bigger fan. It's partly instrumental, partly not, but entirely clever. There is no describing it, since each of those four tunes is entirely different from the others, from Arabica to Tango to Cat Stevensy Country to Bossa Nova. That's Postmusical just in and of itself!

I've commented before on how movie and television scores are the new classical music, a lot of hidden Bach's and Mozart's out there going overlooked because listeners and critics don't take film scoring seriously as an art. But if the great masters were alive today, they'd be scoring films. And their artistic peers are alive today, scoring films every bit as brilliantly as the old masters once scored operas and symphonies. I can now add one of the best to my list, if not the best to date: Bear McCreary. The original Sci-Fi Channel Battlestar Galactica miniseries was scored (and brilliantly) by Richard Gibbs (an album I fully recommend, in fact a must-have in my opinion--Gibbs happens to be an Oingo Boingo alum, just like Danny Elfman, another rock-star-turned-brilliant-composer). But then
McCreary took over for the ongoing series, emulating and riffing on the Gibbs precedent so well that every single season's soundtrack so far is worth buying (at least up to Season 3). Somehow he manages to retain the consistent Battlestar sound, yet produce something completely brilliant and original for every season. Not that much is repetitive. When you hear all four albums, you'll want them all. I consider the whole collection a masterpiece.

I also mentioned before how I was looking for the new Tangerine Dream, and some recommendations came in that didn't pan out for me, and some that did, and I've blogged on the best potential candidates before. But now I've found the best candidate of all: Delerium. They've been around. In fact, they were a spin-off in the 80s from Front Line Assembly, an industrial group I was actually into back then. Yet I'd never heard of Delerium, or anything from them, until recently, when I started hunting down music I liked in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That quest actually landed quite a few gems. But the biggest haul came from a single track, when Buffy and the boys of the Initiative are kicking some demon arse in slowmo, seguing into Buffy and her boy of the Initiative getting some of their own arse in the dormo. This was very different from the usual scoring of the show, and I loved the sound, so I hunted it down (thanks to fan sites that catalogue these things by episode) and found it was "Windows to Your Soul" by Delerium. Then I listened to more of their catalogue and bought a lot of great stuff. They are very much like a cross between Tangerine Dream and Enigma (in fact, that almost perfectly describes them). And they are still producing. So keep an eye on them.

Other discoveries from old that began with a Buffy hunt include Curve and Dollshead. Dollshead only made one album in 1998 and dissolved. They weren't as good but came close to Garbage and, that other new find, Curve. You may or may not like them, but their best track is "It's Over, It's Under." Not 21st century, so not Postmusical, nevertheless worth a mention. But better by far is Curve, who began more or less in the early 90s and are still going strong. Buffy fans will recognize "Chinese Burn." But they have a lot of good stuff (especially on Come Clean and their more recent Gift). Their sound is a kind of smooth punk semi-industrial Garbage electronica. Could have been the soundtrack to a new, cooler Matrix movie, or if anyone ever made a decent film based on the 80s Cyberpunk genre
(no, the film Johny Mnemonic doesn't count...that stupid one-track dolphin-screaming abomination should be cast into the Hell of Being Shamed Alive).

Now back from fringe to mainstream. You may be hearing it all over the place by now, but Day & Age by The Killers is simply fantastic, through and through. It's very much 80s-retro meets what-the-90s-could-have-been-had-that-decade-not-sucked-instead. Original, clever, rockin. Every track on this album is gold, and that's very rare for any group. The sound is something like late INXS meets late Coldplay mixed with I know not what. In fact, this is possibly what the distinctive "sound" of the 00's could have been, had we not fallen into the Postmusical age instead.

In a similar vein are some new albums by artists I recommended before. Franz Ferdinand has a new album (Tonight) that I really like. And it's even more Postmusical than their previous work. On their new album, one track will sound like The Hives, another like the late 60s Beatles, another like early 90s Blur, another like something from their own 80s retro style. You might not be as impressed as I am at first hearing, but I think if you really pay attention to the construction of the music, you'll realize how brilliant they are.

Lily Allen has also wowed me again with her new album It's Not Me, It's You. Like her previous release, she has songs about her family and about the real world, a lot with a neofeminist angle that is cheeky and honest. What I especially like about her work is that she sings songs about real life, about the things real people think about or deal with. Her love songs describe romance the way ordinary people would recognize, the kind that's awkward and normal, rather than over-lofty idealized pie in the sky, or the usual over-dramatized angst or anguish. She also sings about God and homophobes and antidepressants and ex-lovers, all in very down-to-earth terms. And she can sing about her family relationships with remarkable candor, her reconciling with her neglectful, party-roaming dad, or apologizing for being envyously mean to her sister, or
about getting home from a long trip and just having Chinese and watching TV with her mother as the height of bliss (her mom, interestingly, was the producer of Shaun of the Dead; her father was a Welsh actor-comedian popular in the 80s). Her music really has no precedent, and yet has every precedent, as every song is a twist on a different style, from pop to country, yet put through a kind of subdued hiphop filter. Truly Postmusical.

Once upon a time I mentioned Neko Case. She's a red-headed Ukrainian country singer that is simply astounding vocally and creative musically. Though most of her stuff is stock country fare (with those cheesy guitars and the whole vomitous lot), quite a few of her tracks deviate from that routine, and that's where I've found brilliant and haunting music. In general, I can't stand country (when American Idol last week did country week, the only act I liked was Adam Lambert's Middle-Easternized/Power Ballad version of "Ring of Fire," which I absolutely loved--largely because it wasn't that boring country sound anymore, but something cool and original and goose bumpy and way out of the box, yet artful and beautiful). But Neko Case, like Minnie Driver, is one of my sometimes-exceptions. To get an idea of what I like of her catalogue, listen to my favorites: "Red Tide," "Hold On, Hold On," "Blacklisted," "Things That Scare Me." And more. Haunting voice, haunting lyrics, haunting music.

Finally, though not on the Postmusical theme, I'll end by mentioning I've rediscovered some lost 80s music. In fact, I've been having delightful waves of nostalgia watching Ashes to Ashes, the British sequel to Life on Mars (I haven't seen the American remake of the latter, but the BBC original was already superb, and I can't imagine there having been any need to remake it, but that's Americans for you). Ashes to Ashes features a heroine launched back to 1981 by a bullet to the head, but she knows all about her predecessor's experience, and thus goes around assuming everything's a hallucination, which leads to some pretty funny behavior. Anyway, the whole series is a clever tribute to 80s cop shows, complete with the deliberately cheesy chase scenes and camera angles, brilliantly groovy 80s-style sets and costumes, and yes, 80s music...a lot of which I had completely forgotten about. Thanks to that show I've recovered quite a few tracks that are bona fide nostalgia doobies, including stuff by Gary Numan & The Tubeway Army (e.g. "We Are So Fragile," "Are Friends Electric?"), Roxy Music (e.g. "My Only Love," "More Than This"), and Visage (e.g. "Fade to Grey," "The Damned Don't Cry," although there is a better version of "Fade to Grey" by Red Sauce).

So there you have it. My latest favorites. Party on.


Tom Verenna said...

I saw Franz Ferdinand perform live in Portugal during Festival. They sound a lot better live than they do on their CD (IMHO). I also saw Massive Attack, Kraftwerk (you might like them), and Air. The rest of the time I spent walking around the massive hippie and gypsie tents they had set up all over the place. Crazy times, those Festival days.

Luke said...

Best albums ever:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Richard. I liked Neko Case and I'm looking forward to trying the black angels.

Five of my favorite artists you might be familiar with are:

The Mars Volta

Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst)

Giovanni Sollima



Fleeting Mind said...

Good post. Gonna have to check out that new Siouxsie album, although, boy am I depressed about her and Budgie. I had no idea.

Paul Weller - I have Stanley Road. That's a pretty decent album.

Lily Allen - love her. She's all 'tude.

Killers - making reference to Coldplay does NOT help to recommend someone. (can you tell how I feel about Coldplay?)

Actionman said...

Try Apocalyptica, a Finnish cello metal band.