October: In Review

Justin Spicer / October 31, 2011

Every month, the world is inundated with innumerable music choices across all genres and styles. SSG Music can’t begin to cover the disparate strands of noise that graces this vast planet, let alone our desks. “In Review” hopes to remedy this by showcasing a few gems and clunkers that we’ve missed as a given month has passed us by. Consider it our humble offering to you.

This month we catch up on new offerings from Feist, Crooked Fingers, Psychic Ills, and The Beets, the CD/DVD release from Parallel Lines, a CD reissue for Group Inerane, and the [super] deluxe reissue of Nirvana’s landmark album.
 
 

PRESS PLAY:

 
Breaks in the Armor
Score: 8.2/10
Merge
Crooked Fingers

In the [well deserved] din concerning the reunification of Archers of Loaf, the solo pinings of Eric Bachmann have not gone neglected. Breaks in the Armor, the sixth album under his Crooked Fingers alternate, is a sprawling, yet bare album of stark confessionals. Each song, sans slow dance “Heavy Hours,” is an energetic anthem, heavy on nostalgic pop and rock melodies that will stick in your head long after the album’s final note.

More than anything, Breaks in the Armor is versatile. Bachmann flirts with various genres and somehow finds new material to mine from what could otherwise be clichéd style studies. “Your Apocalypse” is a ragged folk-rock song just far enough away from AOR tripe to avoid easily categorization for Clear Channel labeling. “War Horses” is a shade brighter than the typical whiskey-soaked dirge, reminiscent of music that birthed indie’s transformation from a label descriptor into a branding of music. “Typhoon” recalls the forgotten Jason Molina; the one who could rock despite overwhelming sadness.

But Breaks in the Armor is all Bachmann, even if parallels can be drawn to contemporaries and peers. “Bad Blood” has a smooth swagger tied up in classic AoL discordance; the finished product a catchy chorus that bridges 80s schmaltz and 90s crunch with modern production. The anticipation built in verses of “Went to the City” is unbearable; the burst that is the chorus never coming—nor should it. The pounding piano and drums bleeding into one guitar chord before Bachmann’s AoL self unleashes itself with just enough restraint not to drown out his singular sound.

Breaks in the Armor is an album that transcends genre identifiers—and for that, Eric Bachmann truly deserves renewed praise. It’s pop in its purest form, with just enough edge and variance to keep you coming back.

 

BELOW THE RADAR:

 
Hazed Dream
Score:7.9/10
Sacred Bones
Psychic Ills

Hazed Dream surprises with every blank space, the economy of patience and practice transforming the bedroom experimentalists into a tight band composing songs just as gutting live as chill in the smoke-filled confines of your bonged-out living room.

Combining heavy psychedelic riffage with groovy melodies, Psychic Ills find the happy medium between artistic merit and the careful pleasures of digging on a catchy jam without garish accoutrement. “Mind Daze” perfectly surmises the best of Hazed Dream, cruising along a road-ready beat and a beach bum guitar line, sprinkled with just enough acid to make it seem brighter rather than to melt reality into existentiality. “Mexican Wedding” is a cool, Beat-inspired day at the beach; feet buried in sand, tongues bathed in mixed drinks, with bride and groom in good company to kick off a lifetime of sedated bliss. Hazed Dream is the vibe of a world in which Dylan changed the world, JFK averted death and the furthering divide of politics, and Utopia was birthed by one open mind after another. Nothing’s ever easy in life, but Hazed Dream will make it so, even if for just 40 minutes of the day.


 
 
NOSTALGIA:

 
Nevermind: Super Deluxe Edition
Score: 10/10
DGC/Universal
Nirvana

I hear you scoffing. Does Nevermind really deserve a 10/10?

Twenty years later, Nevermind shows its age—but that’s a well-heeled compliment just as much a snide remark pertaining to one of the 90’s greatest albums. Any modern artist can cite the influence of Nirvana on their work and for that alone, Nevermind will stand the test of time even if cracks are beginning to show in Cobain’s artistry and Butch Vig’s production. Just as Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Madonna and a plethora of legends in their genre and era deserve respect for their music (the fascination with their lives outside of the music is a separate subject), so goes Nirvana. That alone makes Nevermind a dime; no argument will dent it.

But let’s quickly look at the music—especially in the microcosm of 1991. For those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it and here we are twenty years later eager to do just that. Though we have never forgotten Nevermind, it was just one of 1991’s long-standing influences. Just as new artists cling to their copies of Nevermind, there are a host clinging to Ten, Bandwagonesque, The Low End Theory, Spiderland, De La Soul is Dead and Girlfriend.

Are you getting the point?

Music can be transcendent (just as it can be disposable). And the double patty with cheese that is being shoveled into the mouths of greenhorns and old vets alike should be savored. The 20th anniversary edition of Nevermind is loaded not only with the original album but with the many demos and best live iterations of those classics (along with non-Nevermind classics such as Bleach’s “Negative Creep”). It’s to be lovingly enjoyed, allowed to let the juices run down your chin as each bite only produces more beef topped with the crispiest, freshest toppings. Discussing the contents, breaking them down into components, will only lessen the impact. Lettuce is for salad, the Devonshire mixes are better than Butch Vig’s master, tomatoes are slimy, yet another widely bootlegged show now being released as part of a Nirvana reissue—it’s inconsequential. This is a landmark collection to accompany a landmark album. Though the sea change Nevermind (and the other releases of 1991) lasted just until major labels began cranking out their own acts from their assembly line, the real ripples are still carrying music into another era. We’re always told there will never be another Beatles; there will never be another Michael Jackson; there will never be another Nirvana. How true, but their influence will bring us a new idol to worship soon enough.

 

MARQUEE VALUE:

 
Metals
Score: 7.1/10
Interscope/Polydor
Feist

Have you ever been the ‘go-to’ person in the lives of others; the person to be relied upon to complete a certain task or able to be trusted with the most sensitive of information? It’s a weighty position to hold and one that many wish to shake before being pigeonholed into mediocrity.

Leslie Feist clearly does not share such fears. Metals continues her strong, albeit predictable streak, of combing the niche sounds of indie pop and bringing them to the masses wrapped in extravagance. Metals is brimming with choral voices, robust string sections, heavy brass, and repetitive indie pop licks to showcase Feist’s effervescent vocals. It’s as playful and sweet as her previous output but one can’t help but poke holes in its paper façade now that Feist is four albums deep into hard won mainstream success.

First and foremost is Feist’s timing. Always noticeable in a live setting, where she’s capable of captivating a crowd in a matter of a few strong, up-tempo songs, Feist brings them crashing down into ballad-heavy middles and ends, slowing her momentum to a crawl. Metals follows this sad troupe, beginning with the powerful ballad “The Bad in Each Other” before immediately crashing the party with downers “Graveyard” and “Caught a Long Wind.” The roller coaster of emotions plays like a badly planned mix tape, the highs coming few and far between and the lows killing the thrill of stomachs being slingshot into throats.

Whatever pacing mistakes it contains, Metals’ loveliness isn’t entirely doomed by timing. “Cicadas and Gulls,” borrows from Mitchell and Baez in its simplicity but stripping away the showy elements of the album allows Feist’s unique vocal style the room to breathe. “Bittersweet Melodies” follows the same motif, just as catchy and gentle in its sheer delivery.

Yet Feist is stuck. Metals, for all its beauty, grows ho-hum with repeated listens. It occupies the same territory as her previous work with little growth in tone and timbre. Feist is in need of a real shot in the arm, the sort that Metals does not provide.


 
 
FOR YOUR EYES:

 
11:3:11
Score: 8.1/10
TQA Records
Parallel Lines

Eric Quach (AKA thisquietarmy) has long reigned as the slow rolling prince of Canadian guitar exploration, but within the trio of Parallel Lines, the cautious momentum of his solo work comes into contact with the sporadic world of post-rock and jazz. The results are exhilarating, with the four parts of 11:3:11 coalescing into one grand composition. It isn’t the prettiest performance video but it captures the creative process as it takes root on-stage. Being separated into four parts (though the pauses are negligible) in lieu of defiantly standing behind one coherent and comprehensive piece is a head scratcher, but the buildup of Pascal Asselin’s drums, Ryan Ferguson’s synthesizer, and Quach’s guitar is mesmerizing, effortlessly blending opposites into a morass that could be mistaken for a modern update of Miles Davis’ fusion without jazz’s newfound stiff, white collar attitude. Improvisation takes many forms and Parallel Lines prove it can become its own form. Watching it play out is a large part of the fun and a means of drawing inspiration.
 
 

ETHNOMUSICOLOGY:

 
Guitars for Agadez Volume 3
Score: 8.9/10
Sublime Frequencies
Group Inerane

If you needed convincing the term ‘World Music’ was an archaic, even xenophobic, term—introduce yourselves to Group Inerane. In conjunction with other groundbreaking Sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern musicians in the cornucopia that is Sublime Frequencies (Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh to name but two popular entities), Group Inerane stems from the music-as-political-statement that has largely left Western music in favor of pop idols and Hollywood glitz.

Guitars from Agadez Volume 3 is a quick reissue of the long sold-out LP but even if it’s in your stereo and not on your turntable, it is well worth the coin and investment. Inerane, carved out from the Taureg style, has far more in common with Western music than you might be comfortable admitting upon initial listens. The album is heavy with psychedelic and folk rock touchstones, the language barrier of the lyrics eradicated by 12 bar blues and guitar playing considered a lost art among mainstream artists and butchered by every two-bit Stevie Ray Vaughan clone to come in his wake. Group Inerane is the music of the new world; where modern tech brings together vast populaces faster than planes, trains, and telephones.

Much like Japan, neglected Western music has been resurrected and mutated in many African regions, none more prevalent than the Sahara. Guitars from Agadez Vol. 3 will instantaneously capture your imagination; its rich textures and catchiness only strengthened by the live-to-tape recordings and crowd participation. This is music by the people for the people—a lost art in the Western world where music is marketed for corporate gain. Group Inerane and the freedom fighters of the Taureg guitar revolution are using our old, archaic weapons and fashioning them into a weapons of change in the same mold as Ochs, Seeger, and Guthrie. Indeed, the machines of Guitars from Agadez do kill fascists.
 
 

ONE FOR THE ROAD:

 
Let the Poison Out
Score: 7.7/10
Hardly Art
The Beets (MySpace)

No amount of references to Nickelodeon cartoon icon, Doug Funny, will wash away the shared moniker between Bluffington pre-teens’ favorite band and the 2011 real-life edition of The Beets. But both do share a pension for borrowing from the past, with the non-animated Beets doing it oh-so-well without a bit of irony.

Rooting around in the same garbage bin as Thee Oh Sees and Kurt Vile, The Beets transform 40 years of psych-pop trash into works of disposable pop art for the hip and clumsy alike. Mod-podged influences from VU, San Francisco buskers and burnouts, and the fallout of Brit-folk’s weirdest stand at the base of Let the Poison Out. It’s the sunny throwback that brings together people entrenched in any pop-derivative genre. Bright acoustic melodies, nasal sing-alongs, and catchy lyrical patterns dot The Beets’ debut for Hardly Art and serve not as a groundbreaker but a refresher. Every once in awhile we need reminded of the archaic power of pop; Let the Poison Out serves as our yearly prize.

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