Posts Tagged ‘pet shop boys’

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2016 End of Year Abums List

December 20, 2016

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It’s almost Christmas and what better way to cap off the dumpster fire known by the name 2016 as with another end of year music list?

Sub-objectivity

soak-2015-coverI didn’t do a 2015 list. Not terribly surprising, since I didn’t post a single thing to this blog in 2015. Regardless of that fact, on Facebook I vaguely remember I stating that the only release I’d put on a 2015 end-of-year list was by Before We Forgot How To Dream by the overly punctuated Soak.. It’s still an album I listen to regularly and, as I said at the time, was the first album in years to truly remind me of why I ever liked music in the first place. It takes me back to the head-space the records of my youth were able to, seemingly without effort: a place where everything makes sense and all internalized cacophony melts away for 40 or so minutes. I mention this because there wasn’t an album in 2016 to really make me feel that way.

Which isn’t any way to measure the quality of records released in 2016 or last year’s Soak. record or even any of my beloved records of yesteryear. I’m simply at an age where new records, without the benefit of deep nostalgic ties, don’t reach me in the same profound way—even when I truly enjoy them. As a result, I’ve come to question whether I’m able to evaluate records objectively, or even subjectively. I’ve come to question whether anyone can, or ever could.

But why let that stop us voicing an opinion?

Part One: Shoegaze / Grunge /Post-punk / etc. revival

mindfullness_web_cover-1440pxFlyying Colours — Mindfullness

For pure ’90s shoegaze revivial, Flyying Colours and Cheatahs are probably neck-and-neck in terms of genre perfection. They both ride a bloody slowdive to the chapterhouse fanclub, if you take my meaning. Being derivative is nothing unique in a genre based on being derivative, but both bands don’t just get the patterns and textures dead solid perfect, they also write great songs to hang them on. Probably the most derivative bricks at the top of a derivative pyramid, but also the most truly satisfying to listen to. It’s hard to pick a favourite but Flyying Colours edge out Cheatahs for the 2016 shoegaze world cup by virtue of simply releasing an album this year.

Purling Hiss — High Bias

Most new releases I buy these days are solidly rooted in sounds of the past. Especially when they’re by new bands. Usually they fall into one of three general categories: Grunge, shoegaze/dreampop and post-punk. Purling Hiss are in the fourth category—they do all three. Influenced either by the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” or influenced by bands who were influenced by VU, it’s a post-modern clearing house of fuzzed-out two chord jams. Probably Brian Jonestown Massacre made a fair impression on them and that means the influence gene-pool is so watered down they almost sound original. But the white noise guitars are too familiar and comforting to be lumbered with the burden of originality. To be honest, I prefer their previous two records. High Bias is a little less grunge and a little more next generation shitgaze, but less unique sounding (for better or worse) than most shitgaze albums were. At times it’s a little like early Teenage Fanclub, but also a little Warsaw era Joy Division. Comfort food for aging indie dudes.

Beach Slang — Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

As with Purling Hiss, I prefer Beach Slang’s previous album to this one. But, like with Purling Hiss, I hadn’t actually heard either of these bands before their 2016 albums came out and inspired me to dig into their fledgling back-catalogues. If I had, I may have been moved to actually write a 2015 list. The emerging theme of this list is “catching up with last year.” Anyway, Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings is the third offering in Beach Slang’s post-hardcore take on being a Replacements tribute band. Completely up my alley.

Happy Diving — Electric Soul Unity

A sludgy AF take on pop-punk. Almost exactly like Superfuzz-era Mudhoney or Bleach-era Nirvana doing early Weezer. It is what it is and what it is is a slice of ’90s heaven.

Pitty Sex — White Hot Moon

Nails the swirly (pun intended) US shoegaze sound. Trips like Eric at times. Throws the odd muse or two. 500 revs of mercury in a galaxy of lilys something something… Pretty fantastic all-in-all, one or two clunkers.

Pill — Convenience

As the post-punk revival played out, it was fated there’d be a no-wave revival. Before the inevitable break-up due to economic realities and the strain of constant touring, Pill will probably solidify a legacy as a seminal act in the no-wave revival scene and be considered partly responsible for so many lame copy-cats bands. A glorious racket with saxophone.

Naked Lights — On Nature

Before breaking-up due to economic realities and the strain of touring, Naked Lights will probably solidify a legacy as a seminal act in the no-wave revival scene and be considered partly responsible for so many lame copy-cats bands. A glorious racket without saxophone.

Exploded View — Exploded View

Exploded View make records that sound like what I think Vivien Goldman’s records sound like, but don’t really. Sort of like Grace Jones backed by PiL or Nico fronting Can. So this record fills a gap in my brain, but despite being satisfying it’s also not quite as sustaining as something by Goldman, Grace Jones, Nico or PiL. I mean, it’s A+ dubby post-punk but somehow a minor letdown after their debut 7″ which felt like a revelation.

Jay Som — Turn Into

Mid-fi bedroom indie-pop. Turn Into would sound absolutely authentically ’90s if it had been recorded on a cassette 4-track, but it’s for the best it wasn’t. What matters is the song-writing captures all the indie/dreampop/shoegaze tropes perfectly but without being too by-the-numbers. Put it this way, the paint is all within the lines, but they’re not quite the colours the numbers are telling Jay Som to use. At times it hints at what The Breeders might’ve sounded like if Tanya Donelly hadn’t left. I’ve only acquired this one recently but I suspect it’s going to have a long life on my phone.

Field Mouse — Episodic

Field Mouse are sort of the Bangles of the dreampop revival scene. By that I mean the singer is strikingly cute in a similar way to Susanna Hoffs and maybe that elevates their edging-on-mediocre indie-rock/shoegaze a little. My cynical take on the aesthetics of pop musicians as as selling point aside, Episodic isn’t actually mediocre. The songs have decent, if subtle, hooks but they do play it a little safe with the guitar tones and blend a touch of pop-punk bravado in with the dreamy lilt. At times I’m vaguely reminded of Matthew Sweet’s Big Star worshiping thrift-shop staple 100% Fun, which is another sideways Susanna Hoffs connection. Actually when you look at Field Mouse and Hoffs/Sweet promo pictures side-by-side, it’s a tad uncomfortable. It makes me wonder if Episodic is the kind of record The Bangles could’ve made in the grunge era if the music industry hadn’t shunted them into a glossy pop pigeonhole with their hugely successful, but break-up inducing, 1988 album, Everything. Now I’d kind of like to hear Field Mouse do a version of “September Gurls” or “Hazy Shade of Winter”.

Field Mouse vs Hoffs

Stargazer Lilies — Door to the Sun

It seems like an absurd hair to split to say that Stargazer Lilies are a touch more psychedelic than other shoegaze/dream-pop bands. Unlike the rest of the pack, their retro leanings lean past 1991 and dig as far back as the ’60s. The absurdity is the class of 1991 were digging back to the ’60s already, so what am I getting at? Something nuanced. Nuanced like the complex weft in Stargazer Lilies’ warm blanket of sonic love.

Pinkshinyultrablast — Grandfeathered

If Stargazer Lilies are a warm blanket, Pinkshinyultrablast are a duvet made out of Brillo pads.  That’s not a criticism. Shoegaze guitar tones can offer you many things. Some of them are comfortable, fuzzy earmuffs and some are wasps nests duct-taped to your head. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of pleasant, gentle sounds on Grandfeathered, but whenever you most expect it, here come the icy jets. If there’s one critique of the album is that it plays a bit too close to the shoegaze template—though at the same time that’s also a strength as far as enjoyable listening goes.

Savages — Adore Life

Somehow more brutal and more subtly textured and more excellent than their excellent debut. Transcends all the post-punk touchstones of Silence Yourself and cements Savages as artists in their own right.

Fear of Men — Fall Forever

Fear of Men have been been writing some of the catchiest post-punky indie-rocky tunes of the last five years. 2016’s Fall Forever is more abstract than the previous LP Loom and the singles collection Early Fragments, but the hooks are still intact if you know where to find them. Where they used to be dangled under your nose, now they’re swathed in a slightly Cocteau Twins-recalling reverb and glistening guitars, with perhaps the specter of Eno looming in the shadows. More than merely following the dream-pop revival template, Fear of Men actually experiment with textures and are rewarded with a captivating record.

Brian Jonestown Massacre — Third World Pyramid

In a way, Anton Newcombe is a bit like Mark E. Smith. He’s put out a shit-tonne of albums and they’re odds-defyingly consistent. Casual listeners might point out this could just maybe be because they all sound pretty much exactly the same. The casual listener wouldn’t be wrong, but for the deeper fan each album has its own specific flavour and blend of spices. Sometimes Brian Jonestown Massacre is a little more curry, sometimes a little more bangers and mash, but always a grand tour of British psychedelia. The spice one might’ve expected to hear on Third World Pyramid, based purely on the cover, is a Spacemen 3 melange as the artwork echoes that band’s logo. Other than the two bands sitting together nicely on a mixtape, and sharing The Velvet Underground as an obvious root influence, the connection seems to end there. This is purely BJM music—or purely Anton’s vision of his heroes’ music—and that’s probably for the best. The slighly drony ’60s indebted pop-rock psychedelia of Third World Pyramid doesn’t break any BJM molds, but it also doesn’t break any BJM molds.

Part Two: Album Rock / Indie-Rock

ch132-goon-sax-rgbGoon Sax — Up To Anything

This is the only album that made me feel close to what the Soak. album did last year. That is to say, what The Smiths made me feel during the dwindling twilight of the second decade of my adolescence.  Up To Anything is a little rougher around the edges though, it’s a bit more like Violent Femmes doing Morrissey than Kirsty MacColl doing Billy Bragg songs. Being teenagers, like Soak. (and Morrissey or Gordon Gano on their first albums), Goon Sax deftly capture the folly of youth with insight and mature observations of their own lack of maturity. “I go to the barber / To get shorn / And I leave feeling empty and forlorn / I show them a picture of Roger McGuinn / Edwyn Collins John Lennon David Byrne it seems I just can’t win / Home haircuts /
Do they ever go right?” No, nothing ever goes right.

Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

I think this record is quite lovely. There are as many people who’ll agree with me as disagree. A record which has, by no fault/merit of the music itself, such clout as A Moon Shaped Pool somewhat defies analysis or critique. It’s a bit like Sgt. Pepper’s—you like it or you don’t and if you do or don’t that makes no difference to its legacy. It’s in a similar boat to Bowie’s Blackstar, an album I won’t bother to comment on. I think objectively most listeners can agree the songs are more accessible than on the previous Radiohead outing, King of Limbs. That record I find frustratingly impenetrable despite how lovely it sounds. A Moon Shaped Pool is lovely and penetrable. It practically begs you to penetrate it and, perhaps, that’s what people don’t like about it. “By the book Radiohead” is a critique I saw thrown at it a fair bit. I understand that assessment, but I disagree. Though the melodic and modal motifs are recognizably Radioheadesque, A Moon Shaped Pool really is unique in Radiohead’s discography and, I think, unique to every other artist’s too. If there’s a through-line to this blog post it’s the unoriginality that blankets (for better or worse) all of these releases. The fact that there’s a rock band that manages to put out a record that is unmistakably it’s own, that no one else is emulating, counts for something in 2016. It counts for a lot.

Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker

Since his 1992 album, The Future, Cohen’s studio albums have suffered from some pretty corn-dog AOR production. People often see this trend as beginning with the 80’s Various Positions and I’m Your Man, but while those two albums retain a sort of Casio presets charm, the early-aughts’, Ten New Songs and Dear Heather are nearly charmless. For years I’ve harboured a secret hope that posthumously someone like Dan Auerbach, Jack White or Rick Rubin will be allowed to remix the albums from that period with rougher, less polished arrangements. It probably shouldn’t be allowed to happen as Cohen’s decades-long dedication to the AM gold schmaltz sound indicates it’s exactly what he wanted. This is evidenced by even his live band sounding like a perfectly quantized midi-production. Why he wasn’t pictured sitting on a yacht off the coast of Greece, sipping retsina as the sun sets, on the covers of any of these albums seems a missed opportunity. The songs are always good though, and You Want It Darker does what it says on the tin. It’s darker in production, closer to what many fans have been asking for and more befitting of his wry and sardonic tone. Not a perfect album (he cynically evokes the chord progression to “Hallelujah” on one track), but this is his best since The Future and a satisfying final chapter.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree

Contains, perhaps, the one Nick Cave song in his entire discography I absolutely cannot stomach: the abominable “I Need You.” The whole album pushes and pulls the listener with beguiling and revolting textures, but for the most part the balance works to good effect. In terms of sonic palette, Skeleton Tree is a clear descendant of the enthralling Push The Sky Away, though somewhat less satisfyingly executed. But if Push was a soft reboot of the Bad Seeds brand, Skeleton Tree completes the task, washing away the very last of the Mick Harvey / Blixa Bargeld residue and further solidifying Cave’s partnership with Warren Ellis as an artistic helmsmen.  So much has been made of Skeleton Tree being recorded in the wake of the death of Cave’s son that it practically defies you to find the album anything but exquisite and unassailable. The thing is, my first child was born about the time Skeleton Tree was released and I actually expect more from in regarding the theme of processing the loss of a child. Six months ago I was merely empathetic to Cave’s loss and now that I’m the father of a three-month old, I can fathom the devastation Cave must have felt. I don’t get that from the album at all. My suspicion is the album has very, very little to do with loss and the claims that it is can be dismissed as opportunistic PR claptrap from the Mute Records PR department. Well, perhaps it’s not merely PR claptrap, but in a way it’s irrelevant information when marketing a Cave release as the themes of death, loss and religious searching are nothing remotely new to his work. Listen to any Bad Seeds album through the filter of the death of a child and the effect is pretty much the same. Boatman’s Call is, actually, perhaps a little more fitting. And also more enjoyable to listen to.

Woods — City Sun Eater in the River of Light

The quality of Woods’ last few records have been on an unsustainable upwards trajectory in terms of songwriting and execution, so it’s not surprising this set of tunes isn’t quite as strong as previous efforts. This inevitability also doesn’t seem to have surprised Woods either as they’ve branched out from their CSNYish folk-rock to some afro-funkier, more globe-trotting sounds. That description should rightly set off some alarm bells, but Woods’ achievement here is they very much pull it off. The new (retro) sonic textures don’t come off as pretentious or self-indulgent and are done rather tastefully (another alarm bell word), with a natural, offhanded ease.

The Fall — Wise Ol’ Man

With so many celebrities dying in 2016, I’ve seen some people speculating online that Mark E. Smith is going to kick the bucket in 2017. Others retort that he’ll outlive Keith Richards and the cockroaches. One thing can be counted on, live or die there’ll be at least two dozen releases from The Fall in 2017 and they’ll all sound like pretty much every other release by The Fall—that is to say, awesome. As is the case with the systematically excellent Wise Ol’ Man. D’uh. I mean, do you even like The Fall or don’t you?

 

Part Three: Pop / Electronic

superPet Shop Boys — Super

Having been a Pethead since 1985, I’m naturally inclined to forgive whatever pop music sins Pet Shop Boys may commit, but simultaneously hold them to an unreasonable standard. With Electric and now Super, PSB have been edging closer to creating my ideal PSB record. If the trend continues, the third in the alleged trilogy will be an unapologetic set of melancholy pop-house they perfected in the ’90s then backed away from. I know this won’t happen and the next album will probably turn another corner. If my dream album was going to appear, all indications say it would’ve been Super. And in some ways it is. It’s the closest they’ve come to their ’90s golden era in some time, yet is also smattered a few sore thumbs. “The Dictator Decides” is the sort of theatrical number which used to be relegated to b-sides (excellent b-sides, but b-sides nonetheless) and is about as close to Scar’s big number in Disney’s The Lion King as anything they’ve written—that includes songs from their literal musical. The high-concept, slam-on-the-tempo-brakes, “Sad Robot World” is another hiccup in the otherwise party-ready set. Though, of course, it’d have to be a bit of a maudlin party to begin with. What’s improved is that all their albums since 2001’s Release have had the whiff of chasing trends and, thankfully, Super seems to have abandoned that. PSB sound happy to just be themselves again so there’s no guest rappers crashing into the middle eight of an otherwise perfect song here.

Jimmy Somerville and John Winfield — Present… Lovers Unlimited

More from the deep well of disco Somerville drank mightily from on his excellent 2015 Homage album. On this EP/mini-album he takes a back-seat as vocalist (though his distinctive falsetto is still unmistakably present) and, though I hate to say so, it maybe works better. The songs are perhaps a little more fun too.  Perfect slice of disco-revival.

Anohni — Hopelessness

There’s moments where Anohni’s Hopelessness is so bluntly unpoetic it dips a toe into self-parody. The sort of thing that might be used for (somewhat trans-phobic) comic effect in a movie about an artsy lounge singer doing a one transwoman show. A touch too earnest while also being a touch too camp. On the other hand, Hopelessness is starkly honest and captivating enough to forgive the occasional ham and cheese. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the album it a synthy neutron bomb of protest songs for today’s fucked up world. Mostly I’m delighted to hear Anohni’s voice in a more disco setting again as that’s where I first fell in love with it on the Hercules & Love Affair album. In the years since, I had to make do with the cabaret-noir of Antony and The Johnsons (which is honestly not too much of a chore).

Die Antwoord — Mount Ninji And Da Nice Time Kid

Die Antwoord manage to pull-off an odd trick. They’re simultaneously an albums band and a band best experienced through their singles—or more accurately, their videos. Each of their four albums has that one or two signature songs (“I Fink U Freeky”, “Pitbull Terrier”, “Cookie Thumper”, “Gucci Coochie”, etc.) and when they issue a greatest hits collection, it’ll inevitably be hailed as their best disc. Supposedly the project is going to end after the fifth album (or might not depending on which press release you read), so a best-of might appear sooner than later. Yet, despite being filler-heavy, the albums are hot conceptual messes worthy of a listen in their own right. In fact, the four albums even manage to work together as single artistic statement of neon strobe lights, transgressive sexuality and spewed blood. This is at least partially due to the subject matter and aural palette changing very little since 2012’s Ten$ion.  That is to say Mount Ninji And Da Nice Time Kid is more of the same and if you liked them before, there’s little to complain about here.

Youth Code — Commitment to Complications

Youth Code’s debut was such a refreshing blast of hardwired true EBM, that it was sadly almost inevitable some more sophisticated flourishes would seep into the follow-up. The Reznorian textures don’t ruin Commitment to Complications, but they don’t help and it would’ve been preferable to see Youth Code go more Skinny Puppy or Front 242 than NIN and Ministry. I suppose it’s good they didn’t Ctrl-C the last album, but I’d rather they Ctrl-C’d the last album.

Odonis Odonis — Post Plague 

2016 saw albums by two rock bands I’ve been following for the past few years take on a sort of more apocalyptic industrial synthy sound. Paradise by Pop. 1280 and Post Plague by Odonis Odonis. The latter does it successfully, the Pop. 1280 sounds a bit like the bad half of 1994 industrial rock. The Ecconoline Crush half of the genre. The best moments sound a but like a grungier The Faint, and about as dated as all that implies. Since in 2016 all music seems to be about borrowing from the past, Post Plague could also be accused of sounding dated in parts. But its ominous synth arpeggios and post-punk noise guitars fall on the cool retro side of dated, not the stale, played-out side.

Kristin Kontrol — X-Communicate

Dee Dee form Dum Dum Girls abandons the polished-up shitgaze take on The Raveonettes’ sound and goes full Madonna. I read a quote from Kristin Welchez a while back that said something to the effect that there were elements of her in Dee Dee but Kristin Kontrol is fully herself. In that case, it’s a little odd she’s pulled anther Bowie and adopted a new persona (with a strangely electro-clash evoking moniker). So, like Dum Dum Girls, it still feels a bit like an art project though she’s much better at this sort of Robyn-ish slightly alternative dance-pop. She even successfully adopts a convincing Lisa Stansfield early ’90s chic on the sleeve. Though, like Madonna, Welchez doesn’t have Stansfield’s deep soulfulness and sense of authenticity nor does she have Robyn’s winking playfulness. Luckily, the majority of the songs on X-Communicate are legitimately quite good—probably a better killer:filler ratio than the average Madonna album, ackshewally.

Jagwar Ma — Every Now & Then

An emerging category of new bands that sound like old bands I’m into is bands that sound like Happy Mondays or Screamadelica era Primal Scream. Jagwar Ma’s previous album hit that nail’s head pretty hard. Every Now & Then is a little more in the vein of early ’90s New Order trying reacting to EMF and scrambling to stay relevant. At times it’s a little less of a throwback and throws in some modern pop sounds and motifs. Those times are its weakest moments (“OB1” is horrific). When they go for a full-on The Beloved tribute on tracks like “Give Me a Reason” or channel Underworld’s strong mid-period in “Colours of Paradise” they shine (much brighter than Underworld’s own dim attempt at reinvention, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future).

Part Four: Deeper listening

starcoreMarielle V Jacobson — Star Core

I’ve been following Jacobson’s career for several years now, from lo-fi releases on various CD-r labels (disclosure: my own included) through to landing on the esteemed Thrill Jockey label with both Date Palms and her new solo record of ecstatically spiraling cosmic drones. Along with a steadily upward career trajectory, there’s also been an artistic trajectory. Star Core is one of those records where it feels like this is the one where it’s finally all come together in a single glorious statement. Listening to it for the first time I felt like how I imagine Chicago Cubs fans felt like when they finally won whatever that baseball cup thingy they won is.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — Ears

Single-handedly re-popularizing the Buchla synthesizer in 2016 (just in time for Don Buchla’s death), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s aptly titled Ears seemingly broke the glass ceiling of the brone scene (bearded modular synth dudes, every city is lousy with them). It’s no mystery why Smith’s music has radiated into the sub-mainstream, unlike the usual modular bleeps and splizleblatts of so-called “experimental” artists, it’s entirely accessible and has more in common with easy-on-the-ears classic synthos like Klaus Schulze or the Tangerines than harsh-tinted contemporary brones such as Lichens, Alessandro Cortini or their messiah Aphex Twin. A comparison made more often might be that Smith is a slightly more accessible Suzanne Ciani, with whom she recorded the Sunergy double-Buchla improvisation. Or is this the easy comparison made by the music press simply because they’re both Buchla-playing women? Probably. I also like to think that if Smith wasn’t such an attractive young woman, that she and her music would still be getting the exposure they absolutely deserve. But I don’t have enough faith in humanity to believe that in 2016 she’d have gotten the same PR push if she looked like Pauline Oliveros. Nor would Oliveros herself if she had been starting out (and not passing away) in 2016. How many brilliant female modular players are out there going ignored because they don’t take a clickable photo while any homely dude with a beard can release half-assed analog squiggles and be hailed as a god?

John Carpenter — Lost Themes II

One of the things that always dated John Carpenter’s films and made them nearly unwatchable in the 1990s and early 2000s was the hokey theme music. So it’s interesting that his aural aesthetic has become in vogue in the past few years. Good lord, need I mention Stranger Things? There was a time when disco, ’70s jazz-funk or smooth yacht rock sounds were considered verboten as well and now those textures are just part of a musical lexicon. We’re living in a post-cheese age where nothing that came before is uncool and if it was popular then, then it must be good. I haven’t been able to decide if John Carpenter’s two recent albums are any good at all. But they really capture that Carpenter aesthetic!

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith — A Cosmic Rhythm With Every Stroke

In historic jazz terms, the piano / trumpet explorations of A Cosmic Rhythm With Every Stroke nestles in between Miles’ smooth mod period and Pharoah’s freak-outs. Not free jazz, but not shackled either. Mellow moods, but challenging enough to keep you gripped.

Mats Eilertsen  — Rubicon

I picked this up purely on the strength of saxophonist Trygve Seim getting top billing on the personnel listing. I only got into Seim last year when I discovered he was the Scandinavian jazzbo I’d been searching for all my life. Or 20-25 years of it, anyway. I’ve always been drawn the bleak and frosty ECM aesthetic and snippets of Jan Garbarek records would grab me, but ultimately leave me (pun intended) in the cold. I figured Scandinavian jazz was something I only liked in theory. Seim, however, just hits me in the solar plexus and the mystical minimalism of Rubicon is an excellent framework for the structured melancholy of his phrasing. Sometimes Seim leads me astray though and Seim’s own 2016 album, Rumi Songs, is unlistenable with it’s brand of self-consciously playful European whimsy. As a fan you win some, you lose some. Rubicon is a solid winner.

Part Five: Band Kampf

I debated whether to separate music I acquired through (or discovered on) Bandcamp into its own section. All these releases could fit under one of the other headings and in the post-record industry music biz, it’s an arbitrary delineation at best. But in the interest of thinning out the other sections into more manageable portions, I went for it.

a2536181642_10Various Artists — Girls Rock Camp Toronto 2016

I love these Girls Rock Camp compilations and the Toronto contributions are always excellent. It may seem pithy to say “Hey hipster, any one of these bands are better than your band” but it’s also true. Your band thinks too hard about being cool. Your band doesn’t play with earnest, unabashed enthusiasm. Your band can’t pull off self-effacement. Your band doesn’t allow happy accidents to happen, but tries to engineer them. Your band is already jaded about being a band. These bands make mistakes and sound right doing things wrong in the same way punk, post-punk and no-wave un-musicians did in the ’70s. The difference between them and your average hipster band is your hipster band is trying to emulate that magic naivete but you can’t steal fire when you own a box of matches.

Lantern — Black Highways And Green Garden Roads

Latern are from Philly, apparently,  though as with most releases in this section I definitely found this tape on Weird Canada—so raised eyebrow emoji goes here. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised I was drawn to this tape since I’m usually not a huge fan of the 1966 psych-pop/garage rock revival type stuff and I’m specifically not big on the British Invasion sound. I prefer the ’68-’72 period for classic psych-rock and as far as imitators go, the near-parody of Brian Jonestown Massacre generally fills the ’65-’67 psychedelic mod tube for me. Lantern, however, take all the tropes I like from America’s counter-attack to the British Invasion and jettison the era’s penchant for bubblegum whimsy. That is to say they mostly borrow from Syd Barret era Floyd with touches of the Byrds, Dylan, and CCR.

Cosmic Letdown — In The Caves

Beatles-esque sitar drones and krauty guitar meanderings. Deep psyche grooves from Cheboksary, Russia that sound enough like a newly discovered Guru Guru / Agitation Free jam to get lost deep inside.

Night School — Blush 

Fuzz pedal girl group power pop. Remember when I was calling Field Mouse the dreampop revival Bangles? Well, Night School sound a lot more like an imaginary grunge-era Bangles. California melodies and harmonies, with distortion. If JAMC we emulating The Shangri-Las, this is like The Shangri-Las doing JAMC. Nothing remotely revolutionary, but a really well done example of the form nonetheless.

Crack Cloud — Crack Cloud

On the no-wave/noise end of the post-punk funk spectrum. Again, a band reinventing wheels and stealing fire with a box of matches, but doing it superbly. Overall one of my favourite releases of the year.

Rooms — it takes a lot to show up

By some confluence of musical influences, Rooms end up in more or less the same place as Cub in 1993. Cuddlecore for millennials? Perhaps, except I have no doubt Cub’s generation X audience would’ve been just as into this sound. As would the CBGBs crowd, or Warhol scenesters, or Ed Sullivan’s viewers or any twenty-somethings since time began. Every time I read something about the traits millennials supposedly possess, they seem to me an awful lot like the same traits attributed to the beat, hippies or generation-xers. It’s almost like people under 30 have always been idealistic and self-absorbed and people over 50 have always been jaded and selfish. But what do I know? I’m long over 30 and not to be trusted.

Kye Plant — Sober & Alone

With his slacker-strummed acoustic guitar and baritone croon, Kye Plant can’t help but bring to mind Bill Callahan or a more sincere, less hidden behind ironic couplets, Stephin Merritt. Lyrically Plant veers more into the neighborhood of Morrissey’s wry social reportage. All pretty high pillars to live up to as a songwriter but damn if Plant isn’t doing a pretty convincing job.

 

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Concert Review: Pet Shop Boys in Toronto

September 27, 2013

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Pet Shop Boys // Electric Tour // Sept 25 2013 // Sony Centre for the Performing Arts // Toronto

I’d been waiting (somewhat passively, assuming it’d never happen) to see Pet Shop Boys live for over 25 years.  So for me to be disappointed they’d have to be pretty terrible and put on a spectacularly poor show. Which, of course, they weren’t (terrible) and it wasn’t (poor) and I wasn’t (disappointed).

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Pet Shop Boys: Electric (2013)

July 9, 2013

pet shop boys electric

Roll: N/A, obligatory PSB review
Album: Pet Shop Boys, Electric

Usually with a new Pet Shop Boys album, what I end up doing is after an initial few listens is I make an alternative playlist with the best four or five songs, the best of the (usually superior) b-sides and a few remixes I prefer to the album versions. I’ve done that with every album since Release (2002). They basically did that themselves with Release on Disco 3 (2003), actually.

Electric appears to be the first album in years I won’t have to do that with as it sounds, more or less, like one of my own custom versions.

But there’s just no pleasing some people.

Now that PSB have finally delivered the hardcore techno/house record I’d been begging for, I’m wondering where the songs are.

It comes off a bit like a compilation of the best fillers from their first four albums might. Which, at worst, makes it a pretty damn fantastic synth-pop record.

In many ways it bears the closest similarity to Relentless, the bonus EP that came packaged with initial deluxe versions of Very (1993). Fans loved it because it was an experimental club-oriented alternative to the main album’s radio-oriented pop. Any lack of “pop” on Relentless could be overlooked since Very simultaneously dished it out in spades.

There is no Very to accompany Electric.

Not that there necessarily needs to be. The album is choc-a-bloc with bona fide thumpers—exactly like what the doctor ordered. Yet even on their spottiest albums, there’s at least two or three out-of-the-park winners (pun not intended) just from a songwriting perspective.

Fundamental (2006) had “Minimal” and “Integral“, Yes (2009) had “Did You See Me Coming” and “The Way It Used To Be“, and Elysium (2012) had “Leaving” and “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin“—all songs that rank with the best of the Tennant/Lowe songbook. While there’s some great tunes on Electric, there’s no spectacular tunes.

That said, Electric is their first album since Nightlife (1999) that, after a few complete run-throughs, I can listen to with skipping three or more tracks. Which should be expected considering there’s no room for fat with only nine songs.

A quick track-by-track run-down:

1. Axis: The semi-instrumental intro track. Very Kraftwerky, very retro. So retro it might have sounded a bit old-fashioned in 1986 even (not a criticism). It’s feels almost like an overture to a musical or ballet about robots so it’s a perfect tone-setter for the album.

2. Bolshy: Not sure what they’re trying to say with this song. Hooking up on the dance floor with a communist or something?  Is that a metaphor? Whatever it is, it’s the signature PSB combo of intellectual themes and straight-up dance beats. Bit of an acid-house feel.

3. Love Is A Bourgeois Construct: Ditto on the “combo of intellectual themes and straight-up dance beats.” Sticking with the Marxist rhetoric of the previous track, it sounds like something that might have been a too-intellectual-not-pop-enough b-side in the nineties. Kind of nerdy. In some ways, this is the most Pet Shop Boys thing they’ve done since Bilingual (1996). The men’s chorus à laGo West” is a real “give the fans what they want” moment. Almost too melodic in it’s own anthemic way.

4. Fluorescent: An example of a brilliant PSB-side. Fuzzy techno that sits somewhere between “Minimal” and their stellar Fundamental era b-side “Blue On Blue“. Could almost have fit on Please (1986) or have been a b-side from their 2003 non-album singles “Miracles” and “Flamboyant“. One of my favourite tunes on the album.

5. Inside A Dream: Also a bit like “Minimal”, the rolling bassline reminds me of “Left To My Own Devices” which isn’t a bad thing. There’s a classic early-PSB chime hook.

6. The Last To Die: The albums only misstep in my opinion. Sort of a victim of the Coldplayization of pop music. Reminds me of PSB’s cover of “Vida La Vida” from their Christmas EP (2009). My only “skipper”.

7.  Shouting In The Evening: The vocal effect is really odd sounding, but in a mostly good way. Pretty hardcore techno song. More relentless than Relentless. Sounds like one of their Yes remixes, which is a good thing.

8. Thursday: The same basic beat and (perhaps exact same) chord progression as “Loves Comes Quickly” (1986). Intentional? Ironic? Nonetheless, a really good Hi-NRG disco track—complete with a classic Chris Lowe “counting” vocal—that’s not quite as good as “Love Comes Quickly”.

9. Vocal: A nice ode to themselves, it seems. “I like the singer/He’s lonely and strange” sounds a lot like Neil Tennant is singing about Neil Tennant. Which is fine, but humourous. The chord progression/bassline sounds a lot like their 1989 hit “It’s Alright” but like a mid-90’s techno remix with some intense synth stabs. Not the kind of  song you get tired of. Repeat worthy. Sort of an abrupt end to the set though, making Electric feel more like a playlist than an album.

Aside from slightly relentless (again, pun not intended) intensity, my main criticism of Electric isn’t a criticism of Electric at all, but rather of the Andrew Dawson produced Elysium. It’s really too bad that Elysium‘s best material hadn’t been recorded in these sessions with Stuart Price.

If “Memories of the Future“, “Requiem”, “Leaving” and maybe even “A Face Like That” and “Your Early Stuff” took the place of “The Last To Die”, you’d have, hands down, one of PSB’s best 13 track albums with all the changes in dynamics, texture and mood that made Please through Nightlife pop masterpieces.

But don’t take my word for it, Electric is streaming HERE. Listen for yourself.

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Depeche Mode: Black Celebration (1986)

July 4, 2013

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Roll: 2-5-8
Album: Depeche Mode, Black Celebration (expanded CD/DVD)

This album marks another chapter in my emotional growth and sexual awakening as a teenager. Or I suppose it’s more accurately a new subheading in the exact same chapter on being a closeted synth-pop fan wearing a heavy metal beard.

The year was 1986 and I was effin’ LIVID this “fagotty bubble-gum pop band” that all the girls were all crazy for, Depeche Mode, had such an awesome, dark, drop-dead cool looking cover for their new album with the coolest, darkest, delightfully cynical title, Black Celebration.

How dare they use this before a more deserving metal or punk band had a chance? What could these dreamy pretty boy airheads do with such a powerful idea? What was going on? Aren’t the culture police monitoring things? How could this happen? Who do I write a letter to? How can we make this right?

Needless to say, I didn’t listen to the album.

Not that I had much of leg to stand on if there had been a Department of Artistic Control I could lodge a complaint with.

Do you wish to file a report?

Yes, that pop band Deepish Mood or whatever stole an awesome album title.

Really, from whom?

I dunno. Anthrax or SNFU. Or somebody else who didn’t think of it. Anyway, a band that isn’t like synthesizer gaylords, man.

I see. And what is that I hear coming out of your Walkman headphones?

Please by the Pet Shop Boys. What’s that got to do with anything?

I was, if nothing else, a highly nuanced fourteen year old headbanger.

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Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (2012)

September 11, 2012

Pet-Shop-Boys-Elysium-album-coverRoll: N/A (obligatory PSB review)
Album: Pet Shop Boys, Elysium

A lot of the Internet chatter leading up to the release of Elysium (it was streamed at the Guardian) has been that it’s reminiscent of Pet Shop Boys 1990 album, Behaviour. Personally, I don’t hear it. What most comes to mind for me is Release (2002).

I suspect what people are actually latching onto is the cover art is the most similar to Behaviour‘s—the the inset white field over the photography is roughly the same ratio (give or take a centimeter) as the inset photography on the white field of Behaviour‘s cover (though reversed, obviously). This is my theory anyway as the albums sound vastly different in tone and production to my ears.

Elysium is also being hailed as their most holistically well-conceived and executed album since Behaviour. Having just read Pet Shop Boys Vs. America, wherein the Boys lament how they feel Behaviour was their first failure (commercially and artistically) as an album, I find this a little humourous. In a wry manner appropriately ironic for the duo, naturally.

Behaviour was certainly the point in which I lost interest in PSB for about four years. I enjoyed “So Hard” quite a bit, but I felt they’d gone off the boil with the rest. I wanted more “Left To My Own Devices” and the straight ahead, yet cerebral, house of Introspective (1988). I was in high school and I wanted an upbeat album that could compete with with the muscular rhythms of Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb and not, apparently, songs like “Nervously”  and “Jealousy” or the other soppy, down-tempo, soft-rock/R&B numbers.

It wasn’t until quite late in 1994 (or early 1995) when I realized the album I’d ignored upon release, Very (1993), was very, very good indeed. It was then that I gave Behaviour another listen (perhaps my first proper one) and realized it’s certainly another of their classics (though a lesser classic). Where it really suffers is in a few uncharacteristically dated production flourishes (for instance the 80’s hip-hop style guitar stabs on “How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?”). Even their quintessentially 80’s “West End Girls” has always managed to remain relatively fresh-sounding in a way much of Behaviour doesn’t. This could be because it was the first album that felt like they were trying to fit-in with the artists they were rubbing shoulders with in the charts instead of just being, unapologetically, themselves.

Elysium gives me a similar feeling. The production sounds so now it almost sounds dated already. Or, perhaps, I’m just a codger who doesn’t really like what pop music sounds like in last days of 2012 and wishes PSB had stuck with the slightly retro (but still progressive) sound of their last few albums.

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Pet Shop Boys: Format

May 18, 2012

Pet Shop Boys Format 2012Roll: N/A (obligatory PSB review)
Album: Pet Shop Boys, Format (B-Sides and rarities 1996-2009)

When Format was announced I was ecstatic that I’d finally get Pet Shop Boys’ 2010 UK Record Store Day 7″ tracks “Love Life” and “A Powerful Friend” in a physical format. Other than it’s a  fait accompli that I’d be buying Format regardless, this was the only real reason for me to pick up the nicely boxed 2-disc set. I already possess all of these tracks (except the one previously unreleased track, “Nightlife“) on various singles and bonus discs.

But then I noticed the collection only goes up to 2009. I guess I’ll have to wait another 13 years before getting those two tracks on CD (if CDs even exist in 2025).

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Pet Shop Boys: Nightlife

June 25, 2011

Roll: 3-10-1
Album:
Pet Shop Boys, Nightlife.

In 1996 Pet Shop Boys released Bilingual which would end up being not only my favourite PSB album but one of my top-five favourite albums of all time. So when Nightlife came out a few years later, it was the first PSB disc to initially disappoint me upon release since Behaviour (1990). I don’t remember exactly what my problems with the classic Behaviour could have been, but I remember feeling that, at first blush, Nightlife felt a bit listless and that Neil Tennant was becoming an intolerably heartbroken old curmudgeon. Of course, this was before they released the truly dismal acoustic-rock tinged, Release (2002).

Hindsight and relativism can paint an album in a different light. Lately I’ve come to the opinion that, far from being a disappointment, Nightlife is actually one of their strongest albums, packed with hooks, infectious beats and their trademark wry couplets.

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