There’s a name for this sort of thing. When us press people arrive at a project a little too late (not my Agit Reader colleagues, however), we generally try to justify our silence on a matter of promise. In this case tUnE-yArDs has fulfilled the promise of her slept-on debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, with this, w h o k i l l. An album so immediately incredible, I found myself paging through her brief back catalog to make sure this peculiar beauty was something I managed to forget about the first time around.
And you didn’t miss anything. The w h o k i l l mythos operates on a much grander level than the plunked, zonked, bottled-up lo-fi of Miss Merrill Garbus’ last record. It’s also a whole lot better. With studio trinkets and a world of pressure, a song like the rat-tat tumble “Hatari” evolves into “Gangster,” an equally percussive boom of flighty vocal runs, a siren-like talkbox squall and seasick horn swings that are all tied together by a tempo that’s both surrealistic and completely rigid. Pop is far more present than experimentation, and Dirty Projectors comparisons make more sense than ever. Words aren’t all that helpful in describing what exactly it is you’re hearing. It’s a rewiring of what an album can be, something that forces you to think about sounds in different ways and consider the importance of an innovator like Garbus—and that’s all before the reconstructed afro-soul of “Bizzness” kicks in.
The songs here are almost exactly what you’d expect a project like tUnE-yArDs would come up with given a spotlight and some rumination time. I have no doubt the germ of the workmanship was always present in Garbus. We’ve already seen the stunning music videos and the indomitable live shows, but expect her to get more inscrutable as doors continue to open.
There are a precious few moments when certain music renders me entirely speechless, much less thoughtless, baffled and confounded. Love it or loathe it, there exists in my head, fortunately, a general rationale with which I can defend my feelings. Then there are those instances when I like something (chemical reactions tell me as much), but I can’t immediately articulate the why. Baltimore-based Ponytail, for instance, is one such band that does this to me. It happened with Ice Cream Spiritual (released in 2008) and it’s happened again with their third full-length, the freakishly self-descriptive, Do Whatever You Want All the Time. The album is a perplexing, genre-melting, and invariably mesmerizing concoction.
The album takes off quite literally with the deliriously chaotic “Easy Peasy,” which pretty much sets the tone for everything else that happens subsequently, and the album never quite sets foot back on terra firma. “Honey Touches” and “AwayWay” are filled with frenetic, rambling riffs, topped like a cherry with vocalist Molly Siegel’s urgent Yoko-like squawks and screams. “Tush” could be loosely described as a joyous rollercoaster ride through an acid-dazed circus tent. Strange? Of course, but it’s a well-meaning strangeness. For all the oddities, each song is an entire intricate production in itself—just take a minute to listen to time signature changes and intricate layering within each track.
Do Whatever You Want All the Time is not for everyone (certainly not for those with sensory-processing issues.) Hell, I’m still not even sure if it’s for me, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy, and I presume that’s what counts. The fact of the matter is that the album, true to its title, does whatever it wants. It’s kind of like an obnoxious five-year-old in a candy store—impossible to pin down—but that’s the crux. Regardless of whether you understand it, there is indeed a method to the mind-erasing madness.
MP3: “Easy Peasy”
Even as he’s entered the fourth decade of his recorded music career, which began with all-time greats the Clean before proceeding to stints with a variety of other bands and solo endeavors, David Kilgour continues to make memorable music. His 2009 outing with the Clean, Mister Pop, found Kilgour and company stringing together a number of lighthearted pop gems and proving that they’re still players in the modern rock underground.
With Left By Soft, his first album with backing band the Heavy Eights since 2007’s The Far Now, Kilgour picks up just where he left off with the Clean. The relaxed, melodic pop sound of songs like “I’ll Climb Back Up That Hill” and “A Break In The Weather” would’ve fit perfectly on Mister Pop, and a good portion of Left By Soft comes from that same vein. This laidback vibe also comes through nicely on the instrumental “Purple Balloon,” a sort of soundtrack to a blissful dream that closes the album.
But Left By Soft isn’t completely mellow, as evidenced by “Way Down Here,” which showcases Kilgour’s lesser heard hardrockin’ side and deftly manages the dynamic between the song’s delightfully raucous and spacy moments. Moreover, the album reaches a fitting climax with “Autumn Sun,” a bright, epic meditation on the joy of being alive that is appropriately followed by “Theme,” a quiet, acoustic instrumental whose understated harmonica tones sound like rays of sunshine. Kilgour’s experience and versatility are definitely on display here, making Left By Soft a worthy addition to his discography.
MP3: “Diamond Mine”
It was one of the odder moments (in a decade full of them) when the ’60s exotica/lounge movement had its moment in the sun. The rediscovery of Esquivel can be in many ways directly linked to the early Stereolab albums that heavily wore his influence on their sleeves. And while the band moved away from such overt invoking, there have always remained little whispers here and there. Once can imagine that is partially due to the contributions of Sean O’Hagan. An early member of Stereolab, he left in ’94 but still contributed musically in a variety of ways over the course of their catalog. He then seemed to transfer his love for Esquivel to his new band, the High Llamas. After a long silence, the band is back with its first record since 2007, Talahomi Way.
While Talahomi Way isn’t the first shot at reviving the revival, there is something that brings back memories of the space age bachelor pad music. But you have to imagine that by this point its more inadvertent than anything. You could also point to Burt Bacharach and the often-invoked Brian Wilson, but that’s not to say O’Hagan is mindlessly aping his influences. When you have a band that traffics in the tasteful addition of both a string and brass section as well as a harp player and other manners of instrumentation that’s normally found in either jazz or classical, there’s a few obvious places to go.
Whatever the trainspotting, O’Hagan stands on his own as an arranger and composer. Talahomi Way is filled with clever, effervescent performances that are maddingly perfect. O’Hagan may be the captain of the ship, but his fellow Llamas match him step for step. There’s not a wasted moment on the record and you’re not knocked over the head by how sophisticated the whole proceedings seems to be. However, when the songs are dissected, it’s mind-boggling at how intricate the arrangements are, when they seem to blow by so lightly. At its core, Talahomi Way is a gorgeous pop record that’s the perfect soundtrack to the upcoming porch days of spring.
Dorian S. Ham
John Andrew Fredrick’s Black Watch has been around for long enough to rival the Lilys in quantity of music output. Their individual band stories sort of match up: the only real constant member in each band is the frontman and primary songwriter and both have had their fare share of My Bloody Valentine comparisons and show an obvious fondness for Brit-pop and the more literary side of mod. But I suppose the similarities end there. Where the Lilys can barely contain frontman Kurt Heasley, John Andrew Fredrick’s lazy lolling vocals make it seem like he’s just trying to keep up with rest of the band. This isn’t a bad thing; bands like the Smithereens, Creeper Lagoon and the Lemonheads have struck gold with the frenetic + lethargic = super cool equation. Of course, too much of anything can become taxing, and throughout the 11 songs on this newest entry into the Black Watch’s vast catalog, Led Zeppelin Five, might be too much to swallow in one sitting.
An album title like Led Zeppelin Five makes some big promises. First, there’s the reaction one might have that this is a Zeppelin revival band (not the case here). Second, if one is in the know (I hope I don’t need to explain why Led Zeppelin Five is funny), maybe there’s a slight chuckle like a reference to the basement of the Alamo. But, after listening to the album, one can’t help but feel a little put on. Maybe that’s what we should expect from a guy who wrote “Like In The Movies,” where stuff “works out the most best one-hundred and ten percent.” The guy’s lyrics are cheeky and chuckle-worthy, but not funny ha-ha like Ghostface. And even if he ties a little too hard to sound bookish (or “erudite,” as they’ve been described), it doesn’t come off as bad as the Decemberists or something (although he does say “twinning” at one point). Melodies from songs like “Cognate Objects” and “Emily, Are You Sleeping” will get stuck in your head. This might drive you crazy, but that might be John Andrew Fredrick’s aim.