An assortment of reviews I did for other things over the past couple months, now all converted to my beloved letter grading system. Where once there was a 4, a 3, and a 3.5 there are now unquantifiable letters whose relative merit is vague and changeable. Just the way all attempts at objectivity should be.
Also, justice for The Lego Movie!! Vive le lego etc.
Panda Bear // Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Part of what makes Animal Collective the most fantastically diverse act in music is how every member brings something different to the table: Avey Tare brings crunch and rawness, Geologist brings a love of odd textures, Deakin brings… erm… I’m not sure – maybe a bit of madness. He was absent for Merriweather Post Pavilion and it was simultaneously their most controlled and their most fantastic release yet. Panda Bear brings a love of harmonics that led super-critic, Robert Christgau, to dismiss Merriweather simply by quoting Beach Boys. That tendency to turn 21st Century Beach Boys infects all the band’s albums, serving as a messy, mad, and sometimes wonderful way of covering up vocal deficiencies.
On Panda Bear’s solo work it comes out even stronger. Person Pitch was a mad, weird set of extended suites of pure harmonics – sometimes pushing over a dozen minutes – the highlights of which are some of the most fascinating, mesmerising music you’ll hear this century. Follow up, Tomboy, was more tame, and suffered for it.
New release, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, is somewhere in between the two. It doesn’t push to the extremes of Person Pitch, but doesn’t drift off into the sonic somnambulism of its lesser cuts. It has more character and verve than Tomboy, but retains the measured consistency that was also that album’s undoing in a way.
What we get instead is an album that has Panda Bear’s trademark vocal texturing, allied to a bounce and energy reminiscent of Centipede Hz’s finest hours. With songs like standout, Mr. Noah, we get a weird, trippy, dub-drenched piece of p-arty pop. That it’s able to balance the fun with the frantic inventiveness is down to the same joyous blend of wide-eyed, child-like wonder, and fully grown up emotiveness – that classically Brian Wilson effect of latent anxiety making the fun that much more invigorating and sincere – that has defined Animal Collective’s finest hours.
That melancholy that quietly underlies so much of Panda Bear’s work comes to the fore most clearly on album centrepiece, Tropic Of Cancer. With Animal Collective’s reputation as a fun, weird band in mind, the title, Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper, would seem to promise an oddly macabre adventure, with hijinks aplenty and typically infectious energy. Over the six minutes of this mournful, harp-led dirge, the album unfurls itself for the pensive piece that it really is. Through Animal Collective, Panda Bear has touched on his father’s death from cancer, but here there’s no escaping its shadow, rendered almost into a lullaby in a refrain that sighs:
And you can’t come back,
You won’t come back,
You can’t come back to it.
The tropical locale of the song title and the lightly Hawaiian lilt, speak of the same covering up that he laments throughout the song. It’s a moment of rare clarity and quiet in the midst of the swirl, casting the album in a new light – one that pierces through the layers of joyous whirling to a centre that is tinged with a sadness and emotional weight that speaks more powerfully than any of the abstractions of his other work ever could.
The swirling soundscapes that bury these more mournful moments are almost intimidatingly dense, but perhaps not quite as immersive as they could be. At times, they lapse into a meditative lull that harks back to Bros. – Person Pitch’s defining statement – and at those moments, as on Boys Latin, the album becomes something to really sink into.
The tendency to regularly stretch these soothing sojourns past the five minute mark does mean the album overstays its welcome, however. At the mid-point, we see the sludge-y bog of Come To Your Senses (over seven minutes long) stretch itself much too thin for what is already one of the least musically engaging tracks on the album. At other points, such as Butcher Baker Candles, it perhaps bounces without the flex in between. It’s oddly rigid, as much of the album is, in truth, suspended on beats that are thick and pushed way up front.
But Panda Bear’s vocal magic can usually carry the day, and often intertwines in bizarrely hypnotic fashion with the pounding sounds around him. All the same, as a whole, at 51 minutes long it lacks the proper variety to sustain itself, and album closer, Acid Wash, is a bum note to end a largely impressive album on.
Where last year’s Slasher Flicks by Avey Tare was a release that stood on its own (and not with much distinction), Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper is an album that any fan of latter day Animal Collective will appreciate. His brand is perhaps the most distinctive, and, probably, the most crucial to the collective. It lacks the dynamism and wonderful contrasts that make their work so strikingly compelling, but the result is a more inoffensive, meditative, and ultimately accessible work.
TV On The Radio // Seeds
TV On The Radio find themselves in a tough position. Seeds is their fifth album, and their first since the death of bassist, Gerard Smith. Both of those are moments of crisis for a band – the fifth album signals the beginning of the perilous middle age of a music career; the death of a band member is obviously a personal, as well as a musical, crisis. They have been a band long reliant on a disjointed kind of groove, a weird ability to propel songs through chaos. Smith’s bass was at the heart of this, tying everything together, right there with the fury and invention of the early days. Now they have to adapt to the loss of both, and the result is an album that is only fitfully successful.
They are much younger men, but if I had to draw a recent comparison I’d say that Seeds is perhaps closest to U2’s much-maligned (but actually sort of alright) Songs Of Innocence. Both come in moments of crisis of identity – old fans losing interest, new fans not getting the appeal – and the bands have to face that change is an inevitable, if difficult to swallow, reality.
Both were also preceded by shocking singles. The Miracle Of Joey Ramone and Happy Idiot are both those weird kind of songs that are catchy in the most offensive way possible. Happy Idiot is marginally less obnoxious, but that’s also because it’s more boring.
It, like much of the album, is polished to the point of being soulless. There’s no drive, no passion, and instead the album finds itself entirely reliant on the kind of latent menace TVOTR nailed on earlier albums. Slower, more melancholy moments just don’t work for this kind of band; especially when the vocals are as restrained as they are here. The opening duo – Quartz and Careful You – stir up false hope by capturing the former with such aplomb you’d think nothing had changed. Well, sort of. It’s still noticeably different – cleaner, more synthy – but feels less jarring and more like a genuine synthesis of old and new sounds.
What stands out most obviously is the lack of guitar. Or rather, the restrained, controlled, segmented approach to it. Much like their disharmoniously harmonious vocals, a staple of TVOTR was a messy, distorted wash of guitars. Elements overlapped, collided, merged; but now everything is eerily spaced out. Their last album, Nine Types Of Light, was similarly atmospheric and spacey, but it felt like a cohesive band taking things slowly rather than the over-produced individuality that characterises Seeds’ soundscape.
It’s here that the absence of Smith’s bass really resonates. There’s an empty space – an eerie absence – at the spine of every song. I’ve listened hard to see if there even is any bass on the album and, for the most part, I’m not entirely sure. It’s there on the opener, Quartz, and briefly returns at the album’s close, but otherwise it seems either absent or substituted by synths. Elsewhere, they attempt to compensate with bigger percussion, but it doesn’t entirely work, instead adding to the over-produced feel.
I feel bad being so down on Seeds. It must have been a tough album to make, and there’s a dignity in its almost elegiac tone of optimism tinged melancholy. It feels like an attempt at truly moving on, which should be admired. It’s almost romantic. But the fact it’s kinda boring is the only real take-away from the album.
What may be saddest is that the moments I really like are the most nostalgic. Quartz’s opening calls back to the opening lines of their peak – Return To Cookie Mountain – and has the same feel of stone cold classic, DLZ; Winter has a roughness and bite that feels distinctly familiar; Right Now has a sadder twist on Dear Science’s funk and weird danceability; and album closer, Seeds, ends with a sea of wailing guitar that feels so vintage it’s almost sort of heartbreaking.
That last song sums up so much of the album – and not just because it’s titular. It’s frustratingly conventional at times, led by synths and some sad piano that feels jarringly middle of the road, it has vocals that aren’t really all they should be, and it’s just missing some vital spark. And then, somehow, it shakes off all that. The last two minutes take off into something beautifully sad. With that guitar to steer them home all feels right. The vocals, freed of having to carry the song, blend into just another layer of airy longing. Bass rumbles in the gaps, suddenly emerging from hibernation. The piano and synth become the tasteful flourishes that have been a staple of TVOTR’s expansive palette for years. Everything gels. A soul comes out.
In those moments I want to love Seeds. I want it to be a sad ‘one step forward, one look back’ kinda album. I want it to stir up memories as it shakes them off. I want it to remind me that they’re still a great band. It does, but it just makes me want to listen to something better that they’ve already done.
Listen to: Quartz, Careful You, Seeds
Parkay Quartz // Content Nausea
Content Nausea sees Parquet Courts (Parkay Quarts?) continue their gradual evolution into Sonic Youth – for good and bad. On the one hand, they’ve rediscovered some of the formless groove that defines Sonic Youth and their own electrifying debut, Light Up Gold; on the other, they continue to grow self-indulgent and self-obsessed, staring into the abyss that is their apparently deep lyricism. At times it has a strange, mystic, almost Southern Gothic surrealism – a weirdly engaging kind of poetry that’s probably just as pretentious as everything else, but at least brave enough to be interesting. Jaded slackers saying they is jaded slackers is not deserving of spoken word sections. Maybe they should learn from Sonic Youth’s infamous NYC Ghosts & Flowers, notably rated a zero by Pitchfork, and stop trying to impress everyone with how anxiously insightful they can be from their sofa.
When Content Nausea, and Parkay Quarts, properly engages with their increasingly urban outlook, musically it leads to some wonderful oddities amidst the wash of loose guitars. Psycho Structures is one of several vaguely electronic interludes – it’s the closest to a song proper – and it’s here where the anxiety and nervousness of the lyrics comes through in a way that works; although it’s still very, very pretentious.
On the filler tracks that pad much of the album (an improvement on the schizophrenic, anti-form Sunbathing Album; a notch below the individually great cuts of Light Up Gold), they recapture some of the killer riffs that made them so instantly engaging before. They still lack the tightness and punch of before, but I increasingly get the sense that they won’t be making a return. An album made up of two minute explosions in some rural garage doesn’t sound as intelligent as seven minute sprawls on urban ennui from NY.
I don’t want to harp on about past glories, but damn if those rural scenes of Light Up Gold weren’t what made it great. That, and the music. It’s a shame then, that since they have pretty much ditched that angle.
Instead, the best we can get is Uncast Shadow Of A Southern Myth (what a title) – a brilliant, soothing return to form. It has the spaced-out groove of Instant Disassembly (the only track really worth any time off Sunbathing Animal) and that same sense of a dropping of the act. The relentless, cloying cynicism and solipsism that defines basically every other cut drops for half a dozen strung out minutes. If Parquet Courts want to be a band where they talk and some music happens somewhere in the distance then this is what they need to do. You need some damn riffs guys, you need beats that rumble rather than tumble, you need something to happen sometimes, and you need to at least try to sing.
Which brings me round to a tremendously ill-conceived cover of These Boots (Were Made For Walking). Vocally, it’s a car crash. I get that it’s meant to be, but God, it’s just awful. The basic Western feel of the music – the trumpets especially – is solid, but nothing close to what would be necessary to save this cover. If anything, the rudimentary chug of the music, although it could have worked on its own, just adds to the painfully amateurish feel of the whole song. And I’m pretty sure that was mostly intentional. It’s really distressing stuff, and on so many levels. The next track is called Insufferable.
It’s a shame since largely, and lyrical qualms aside, Content Nausea is a return to form, and a return to something essentially Parquet Courts (despite the name change). But then maybe the dodgy lyrics and pointedly tuneless music is Parquet Courts now. Maybe I should stop caring about them, and then write some poems about how jaded I am about jaded garage punk rockers, and then get my friends to play their guitar intermittently whilst I shout/sing my poetry. But, for all that, I haven’t given up on Parkay Quarts. Amidst all the navel-gazing and increasing affection for anything stodgy and slow, I can still see something there. There are threads to pull at, angles to explore. They’re a different band to the one I thought I was a fan of, but they could still be a good one. Content Nausea is an edging towards something better, even if it’s not all there itself.