the national – high violet

The National High Violet.jpg

i can count on one, maybe two, hands the number of records i listen to just as much now as i did five years ago.  many people undoubtedly find themselves in a similar situation for a variety of reasons, but i’m a highly impressionable person at an equally impressionable age, so it follows that a large portion of my musical diet would be substantially different at the age of twenty-three than at the age of eighteen.

for instance, i now see the incredible merit and social relevance of rap music and appreciate the muted refinement of ambient artists, while i tire quickly of acts like the black keys and muse that once structured such integral components of my musical identity.  although there are many albums i revisit frequently with general fondness, only a select few have consistently remained in heavy rotation for a half-decade.

the national released high violet on may 10th, 2010, just a few weeks before i graduated high school.  already industry veterans, the national had recently experienced two successive strokes of good fortune: the critical acclaim of 2007’s boxer and their label’s subsequent merger with 4ad.  a larger label means a bigger press cycle, which is inevitably how i was introduced to their fifth album.

i’m still not sure what initially drew me to the national, but i have a feeling it was largely due to familiarity and comfort.  familiarity in the sense that matt berninger’s voice was lower, more in line with my own, and comforting in the sense that he could be so emotive within the confines of a limited vocal range, a shared affliction that i had previously thought impossible to overcome.  then there was the fact that the national’s overarching demeanor was a little bit downcast and glum, which immediately reflected the lingering bits of sadness and self-doubt i was starting to feel over closing a huge chapter in my life and beginning a new one from scratch.

over the course of the ensuing summer, high violet took a backseat to more upbeat records conducive to late-night drives and sunny afternoon beach outings, but it held a special place for those slower moments, ones where i had extended time periods to myself and access to headphones.  the tremolo guitar chords that open “terrible love” were immediately soothing, a guiding force that eased me into a sense of melancholy and reflection.  throughout the following year i gradually absorbed the album and turned to its predecessors, boxer and alligator, for points of reference, but i always felt particularly drawn to high violet, to its effortless interchange of brass and strings as harmonic support, to berninger’s narratives and reflections, to the dessner brothers’ triumphantly symphonic compositions.

when played in full, high violet ebbs and flows with confidence. “bloodbuzz ohio” is the centerpiece of the album, both sequentially and structurally: the first five tracks build slowly towards it, each one offering a single trait that would eventually be absorbed into “bloodbuzz.”  specifically, the drumming in “anyone’s ghost,” the gradual wall of sound in “little faith,” and the orchestration in “afraid of everyone” all compound on one another to the point that the subsequent arrival of “bloodbuzz ohio” feels completely natural, as if nothing else could possibly follow.

the back half of high violet details the comedown from the exuberance of “bloodbuzz”; appropriately, it’s nearly a mirror image of the front, with elements being continuously subtracted until the arrival of “vanderlyle crybaby geeks,” a finale with similar gang vocals and string arrangements to that of the opener, “terrible love.”

symmetry aside, i constantly found other aspects of high violet to hold close.  the penultimate cut, “england,” was especially relevant in the first few months of 2012; berninger’s personification of an emotion throughout “sorrow” was a strong point of reference when i started to take poetry a bit more seriously; bryan devendorf’s blatant disregard for rock drumming conventions forced me to re-examine the rhythmic constructs and possibilities of every song that i wrote.  it seemed that every few months for the first three years that i owned this album, i would find something new to obsess about and pour over within high violet.

by the time i reached my senior year of college in the fall of 2013, the national had released their follow-up effort trouble will find me, and while i loved the album and cherished its place within the band’s chronology of development, a sliver of disappointment overcame me as i realized that they would never again offer up something that flowed as organically – and with such volatility – as high violet.

individual songs on the album had, by that time, largely ceased to function as emotional triggers for me, but it still remained on my iphone in its entirety and it frequently soundtracked my long walks to and from classes and around town.  particularly, high violet felt appropriate against the desolate backdrop of cripplingly cold and long wisconsin winters, reflecting the underlying misery while offering a degree of warmth akin to freshly-swallowed whiskey.

as i sat down to revisit high violet in depth for the umpteenth time in order to write this column, i’ll admit that i saw the telltale signs of an album that’s beginning to wear on me.  moments that once felt mesmerizing now had a slightly stale taste; some of the symphonic arrangements now feel derivative, unnecessarily grandiose.  still, i distinctly remembered my heart being beleaguered by the usual suspects, i still found something new to admire and dissect in bryan devendorf’s drumming, and i still laughed at the comically morose zombie references stashed in “conversation 16.”  high violet might not be an album that will hold a permanent slot on my portable media device five years from now, but its influence is paramount; i’ll always save a special place for those eleven tracks.


in defense of kanye west

kanye 1folks with access to basic cable television and/or an acceptable internet connection were treated to another exciting installment of kanye west’s unorthodox public relations practice last sunday night.  as critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter beck began his acceptance speech for his album of the year award at the grammys, west briefly stormed the stage in what turned out to be mock protest before returning to his seat, ostensibly docile and in good spirits.  the ensuing internet documentations of audience reactions bordered on priceless: numerous screen grabs and forever-looping vines captured multiple celebrities uttering phrases not suitable for television, while a clip of beyoncé mouthing “no, kanye, no!” as jay-z looks on in absolute horror went viral for an appropriately hilarious reason. 

what initially seemed like a humorous reference to west’s infamous 2009 tirade was quickly reframed by a post-grammy interview, in which west asserted that beyoncé was the rightful album of the year winner and that the award ceremony would do well to recognize true artistry. 

understandably, the internet erupted once again.

west elaborated even more the next morning to a tmz reporter at john f. kennedy international airport, assuring the gossip columnist that he did indeed enjoy beck’s music, but morning phase was not album of the year and even beck himself should know this fact.  again, for someone with a history of being vociferous at uncomfortable (or perhaps just inconvenient) times, this clarification still did not bode well for west.  social media was quick to collectively point out that beck played all of the instruments on morning phase and had a hand in its production and engineering yet beyoncé relied on a large team to create her own masterpiece, while a wide spectrum of people – ranging from forgettable high school acquaintances on facebook to michael mcdonald – asserted that west’s outburst was nothing more than a cry for attention from an untalented musician with an oversized ego.

west had been depicted as the villain once again, although this time his detractors merely proved the most salient points of his arguments.  as one of my more level-headed friends pointed out on facebook, “it’s 2015 and artistry is cultural relevance,” a position at the center of west’s post-grammy interview.  beck’s album was undoubtedly well-crafted, a nod to his near-thirty years as a recording artist, but was it memorable?  did it have substantial cultural impact? 

in comparison, beyoncé was surrounded by one of the most massive secret rollout campaigns in music industry history and has subsequently dictated how major recording artists consider unveiling their next highly-anticipated project.  the album also featured a one-to-one ratio of songs and music videos – another unprecedented and game-changing alteration to the album format – and spawned a handful of singles that resonated deeply with large audiences throughout late 2013 and into 2014.  was beyoncé’s album the best of 2014, if examined exhaustively and cohesively under a microscope?  probably not, but it arguably carried more cultural weight and ingenuity than beck’s contribution. 

west’s outburst also needs to be understood in the context of the grammy awards themselves, and the increasing antiquity of industry standards that they represent.  the music industry has had a long and complicated relationship with non-white, non-male artists, and with black artists in particular.  hip-hop was not recognized as a legitimate musical category until almost twenty years after it began to impact large swaths of american culture, and the category of best rap album has subsequently been whitewashed with artists like eminem and macklemore winning a collective 35% of the awards since its inclusion.  the grammys also created an “urban contemporary” category in 2013, a confusing addition that at best allows p.o.c. artists more chances at winning an award but, at worst, comes dangerously close to officially segregating the awards ceremony into white and non-white pop categories.

these antiquated issues are well-documented and are rehashed in some form each year before the awards show airs; in some ways, the committee’s white paternalism can be an ample source of humor and satire, a sign that the old guard is on the decline and drastically out of touch with cultural reception of music.  but the fact that race issues in the music industry are still so transparent midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century is incredibly frustrating to a wide variety of people, and must be especially so for those p.o.c. artists that routinely record grammy-caliber work.  that beck – a white male with a long, positive history in the music business – received the highest accolades for an album that broke or challenged few boundaries while beyoncé – a black female with an equally positive, albeit slightly abbreviated history in the music business – was snubbed for one that restructured the album experience and continued to expand the confines of modern pop and r&b music underscored this skewered patriarchal and racist perception of the grammy awards.

cultural relevancy is – by and large – the main focus of west’s position against the grammys and against that particular award, but his manner of speech and timing inevitably spawned other critiques of his opinion.  for those making secondary or tertiary arguments against kanye or in defense of beck, let me weigh them out and provide a bit of counter-intelligence.

first, the claim that beck is more deserving of the grammy because he played all of the instruments on morning phase does not hold up in the slightest.  while that feat may indicate an impressive musical talent and a prolific compositional ability, it does not automatically indicate that said musician will create a superior product.  that aspect also seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the industry’s decision in awarding artists, as recent recipients of the same grammy, like daft punk and adele, have had a host of collaborative artists, songwriters, and producers to assist them.  countless multi-instrumentalists (see ty segall, mikal cronin, etc.) self-produce fantastic albums year in and year out, yet they are never in serious contention for an award so venerated as album of the year.  i don’t believe that beck’s studio mastery had as much to do with defining his grammy nomination as it did to partially justify his win after the fact.

second, there is still a wild notion adopted by many that kanye west does not understand music, cannot intelligently construct a musical idea, and as such should not be allowed to pass judgement on what constitutes “good music.”  such notions are likely cultivated by only witnessing kanye west the celebrity and not researching or understanding kanye west the musician.  apparently it bears repeating that before he established a successful career as a rapper, west produced jay-z’s the blueprint and had a hand in crafting the sound of early 2000s hip-hop artits like ludacris.  the barebones constructs of beats that would be approved for use by multi-million dollar rappers must have an adequate, consistent rhythm and at least some harmonic and melodic variance, basic elements of musical knowledge west time and again has demonstrated his grasp of.  at this point, one could theoretically truncate the rest of west’s successful career and still use this brief period to illustrate his possession of musical knowledge and an ability to articulate opinions on other music around him.

the fact that west has maintained critically-lauded and commercially successful career under his own name erases any doubt of musical literacy, or of his qualifications to pass judgement on others.  without west’s eclectic musical taste and insatiable appetite for new sounds his 2007 album graduation would not exist, which would subsequently alter the contemporary hip-hop landscape.  graduation immensely expanded the sonic palate of mainstream hip-hop, rejecting the militant sounds of gangster rap that had dominated the landscape for nearly a decade in favor of electronic samples and references to house music.  his comparatively introspective lyrics throughout the album and its follow-up, 808s & heartbreak, ushered in a more cerebral, analytical breed of rappers like kendrick lamar and earl sweatshirt, while his shift to darker, moody undertones undoubtedly paved the way for artists in the vein of kid cudi and drake.

west’s capacity to understand artistry and cultural relevance is high, as he has seen the reception of his own work drastically change the musical playing field and has surrounded himself with artists capable of performing the same feat.  he doesn’t need to be humble, and he usually is not, although the fader has outlined instances in which west has relinquished his awards to artists he deemed more deserving, which should give pause to any accusations of a double-standard.

by and large, most of west’s deriders simply feel that he should have kept his mouth shut, that his comments were abrasive or insulting or unwarranted.  the non-confrontational nature of awards ceremonies may dictate that the time and place to speak one’s mind is elsewhere, but it is paramount that west went so convincingly against the grain, that he refused to adhere to an unwritten set of rules.  his comments solidified what many in the industry try to sweep under the rug: that recognition of true artistry often pales in comparison to a retention of the status quo and to keeping white male artists completely in the driver’s seat.  that so many subsequently lashed out against him is an unsettling reminder that it is midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century and a post-racial music industry is a spec on a five-dimensional plane that seems utterly unattainable.

queens of the stone age – era vulgaris

Era Vulgaris.jpg
interscope records

it was tempting to shift this segment’s focus to the queens’ 2005 effort lullabies to paralyze; this year marks the tenth anniversary of the album, and it’s always been one that has accurately reflected the drastic changes that impacted the band’s lineup and overall sound throughout the mid-2000s.  but as important as lullabies to paralyze was, its successor was even more telling.

if lullabies served as a partial reset button for queens of the stone age, then era vulgaris should be championed as proof that the band’s retooling worked.  the album sheds the band’s previous propensity for erratic song lengths and distills all of its contents down to similar sizes, offering up something that feels like the closest josh homme will ever come to writing a pop record.

sometime early in his career, homme coined the phrase “robot rock” to refer to the salient traits of his music.  queens of the stone age was a robotic project in the sense that a large portion of its guitar riffs were repetitive in nature, becoming a continuous mechanism that powered the vast majority of their songs.  this practice really came to a head on 2002’s songs for the deaf, with tracks like “first it giveth” and “go with the flow” leaning heavily on down-tuned, droning repetition, while others like “no one knows” and “a song for the dead” were cyclical in nature and relied almost exclusively on a pair of alternating riffs.

era vulgaris is decidedly robotic in a slightly different sense.  sure, the guitar remains at the forefront of the band’s sound – because the queens wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t ultimately adhere to a meat-and-potatoes approach to rock’n’roll – but era vulgaris portrays a new, unabashed embrace of analog synthesizers that become an integral part of the album’s sound.

riffs that would have previously been considered robotic solely due to their repetitive tendencies benefitted from this new sonic delivery, as the angularity of the synthesizers on “misfit love” and their brutal interjections throughout “turnin’ on the screw” adds an industrial dimension to the band’s aesthetic.  it’s plausible to envision the entirety of era vulgaris being written and recorded in an abandoned factory, with buzz-saw guitar lines and metrically flawless drum parts metaphorically replacing the machinery.

part of this shift can be attributed to the changing landscape of principal songwriters in the band.  the first three albums were largely a collaboration between homme and bassist nick oliveri, with occasional vocalist mark lanegan offering lyrical input.  oliveri’s exit in 2004 precipitated all of the major changes in queens of the stone age, as new members troy van leeuwen and joey castillo filled in as contributors.  lullabies to paralyze embodied that dark period rather well, but it felt like van leeuwen and castillo were trying desperately to write the fourth homme-oliveri queens of the stone age album instead of relaying their own creative input.

that’s why era vulgaris is so fresh and different, the outlier in the queens’ discography.  never has an album, before or since, relied so heavily on elements of dance music or incorporated crucial elements of fundamental electronica without hesitation.  even the band’s approach to the most resounding of homme’s musical tropes is novel, as they strip down the effectiveness of repetition to its very core.  “sick, sick, sick” leans on a single note for over half of its duration, forgoing any semblance of melody in favor of strictly mechanized rhythm, and similar practices also ensue on “into the hollow” and “battery acid,” albeit with more melodic leeway.

the robotic nature of queens of the stone age is ever-present, and it will probably never leave.  what makes era vulgaris so remarkable is how homme has used his complete mastery of the aesthetic to prop up melodic vocal lines that are pretty much the antithesis of his riff-based guitar playing.  homme has always toyed with the notion that rock’n’roll does not have to be masculine, particularly by employing falsetto in his vocals.

his use increased as he became a more confident and permanent lead vocalist, and his unabashed embracement of the technique is on full display throughout era vulgaris.  from subtle hints on “turnin’ on the screw” and “3’s & 7’s” to more concentrated usage on “misfit love” and “suture up your future.”  this partial admission to vulnerability in turn opens up the possibility of more intricate, ambitious vocal contours which are evident across pretty much the entire album.

there’s a strong camp that fervently maintains that songs for the deaf is the finest queens record pressed to wax, and this is not an argument against that claim.  while that album is undoubtedly a display of flawless musical talent, era vulgaris holds its own due to its ingenuity and moments of delicacy.  the album’s lone bit of recycled material, “make it wit chu,” is repurposed from its desert sessions origins into a concoction that matches the aesthetic of the rest of era vulgaris, a slightly crass blue-collar love song to cool down with in between the more aggressive tracks.

there has always been an element of sexual allure in josh homme’s music and stage persona, and era vulgaris bears witness to that intersection.  queens of the stone age might be the finest rock band actively recording, and era vulgaris runs the entire gamut of their musical ambitions and capabilities.

the weeknd – trilogy

three mixtapes in one year suggests ambition, but the fact that abel tesfaye later remastered and repackaged his as a trilogy is indicative of a carefully crafted plan, one that incidentally helped to reshape a strain of modern r&b.  three years later, that strain may feel as if it’s anything but innovative – partially due to the weeknd’s lackluster debut, kiss land – but the fact remains that house of balloonsthursday, and echoes of silence dictated a large portion of music’s trajectory in 2011.

each mixtape contained nine songs that were always haunting and mournful, yet they simultaneously propped up tesfaye as one of the most talented – and downright virtuosic – singers of this young millennium.  his counter-tenor range frequently gave the illusion of falsetto while rarely actually employing the technique, allowing him to convincingly cover a michael jackson song and sing countless melismatic hooks with ease.  combine that talent with a team of producers just as likely to explore post-punk and indie rock as they were to sample r&b and hip-hop timbres, and it’s no wonder that the three mixtapes found within trilogy hit as hard as they did.

i personally belong to the camp that digested each mixtape individually, in their originally mastered states courtesy of free download sites like datpiff.  but i also subscribe to the accepted theory that all three are companion pieces, so i’m choosing to talk about them under the umbrella of trilogy.  the breakdown will work like this: each mixtape will get its own set of paragraphs and will mostly be discussed in terms of its original presentation, but i’ll allocate a final paragraph or two to touch on the impact of the remastering on trilogy and how each bonus track fits with the rest of the mixtape.  cool?  cool.  let’s dig in.

House of Balloons

house of balloons is the magnum opus of the weeknd’s discography, yet even this mixtape threatens to not withstand the test of time.  as pitchfork rounded up their top one hundred albums of the decade so far earlier this year, house of balloons landed near the middle of the pack, but the site’s stance towards the mixtape seemed almost apologetic, likening the weeknd to a “beta version of some music bot developed in a lab outside of toronto” in comparison to other artists prominent now.  that may very well be true (kiss land seemed to consciously steer away from the definitive gloom of the weeknd), but it shouldn’t detract from the impact house of balloons had when it originally hit.

the weeknd first surfaced in late 2010, posting “what you need,” “the morning,” and “loft music” to youtube anonymously.  all would later appear on house of balloons.  the initial mystery and anonymity of the weeknd was crucial, particularly because it was indicative of both the creation of house of balloons and the subsequent controversy that followed.

the three original tracks posted by the weeknd were produced by a guy named jeremy rose, who details in an interview his relationship with tesfaye and how it went sour.  the two stopped collaborating before the songs were posted, but both rose and tesfaye were credited early on by smaller blogs who covered the music.  however, when larger outlets picked up on the sound, the anonymous allure was slipped into the weeknd’s persona.  after house of balloons dropped in march of 2011, the general public learned of tesfaye’s role as the voice of the weeknd but were led to believe that illangelo and doc mckinney were the producers solely responsible for the haunting aura that permeated house of balloons.

rose’s involvement with the original collection of songs certainly makes him the initial architect of the weeknd’s sound, but not its primary one.  it’s possible, and perhaps even probable, that illangelo and doc mckinney began their tenure with tesfaye as faithful replicators of the sound rose had crafted, but eventually they became innovators.  the version of “the morning” that appears on house of balloons is radically different than rose’s original, sped-up and re-tooled, and “coming down” is the spookiest offering on the mixtape, with its gusts of white noise and its paralyzing bass synth stabs.

then there’s “house of balloons/glass table girls,” the title track and addendum that so accurately encapsulates both the lyrical and musical pillars of the weeknd.  the repurposing of various elements of “happy house” by siouxsie and the banshees – primarily its guitar melody and vocal hook – adds the slightest carefree element, enough to complement tesfaye’s lyrical exoneration of his rampant drug use and poor treatment of women.

but the sunniest disposition ever attached to the weeknd quickly disappears as “house of balloons” dissolves into “glass table girls.”  tesfaye’s cadence of “bring the 707 out” references both the muted bass-snare hit of a roland tr-707 – ostensibly used to create the track – and the type of glass table used to snort cocaine.  and that’s the simple endgame of the weeknd: to get high and have sex with girls.  tesfaye broods in a low register about mixing drugs and tells various anecdotes, effectively blurring the line between fiction and a first-person account.  that’s what was so initially enticing about the weeknd: a grueling and explicit examination of an r&b lifestyle that was simultaneously sought after.

still, the sped-up beach house samples on “loft music” and “the party & the afterparty” (rose handled production on the front half of that track) were crucial points of cross-pollination that helped to push the weeknd’s sound onto an even larger audience.  rose received credit for his work when trilogy was repackaged and released in 2012, although this was probably due to warranted legal complaints on his behalf.  the remastered tracks on the house of balloons portion of trilogy received diligent attention, falling more in line with an audio snob’s expectations.  low-end pulses resonate more, drum triggers feel appropriately crisp, and tesfaye’s vocal echoes are more apparent and contribute more directly to the desired ambiance.  the only glaring omission is on “what you need,” which lacks the aaliyah sample that functions as the original’s calling card.

as is customary of many reissues (trilogy essentially functions as one), a bonus track is tagged at the end of each mixtape.  house of balloons received “twenty eight”; the title refers to its numerical placement in the weeknd’s canon, but rap genius also tells me that it could refer to the approximate number of grams in an ounce.  i’ll take their word for it.  sonically, “twenty eight” is an extreme outlier from the muddy, drug-addled haze of the rest of house of balloons, and doesn’t follow its lyrical pattern, either.  instead, “twenty eight” prefaces the sentiments found throughout thursday, where tesfaye weighs his artistic ambitions against primal instincts and aspirations of fame.  the timbral flip-flopping between stock acoustic piano and post-dub punches is also an indicator of that dilemma, and slightly foreshadows the direction that kiss land would eventually take.

The Weeknd Thursday

tesfaye was afforded the luxuries of time and anonymity while crafting and refining house of balloons, but both of those assets disappeared amidst the sudden media fervor and rampant digestion of his mixtape and the weeknd persona in general.  he’d promised two more mixtapes by the end of 2011, a tall order for any artist, let alone one working under such sudden, intense scrutiny.  the follow-up to house of balloons could have felt rushed or could have been full of throwaways from the first recording sessions; instead, tesfaye and his duo of producers offered up thursday, a haunting continuation that found the weeknd’s persona increasingly defined within the context of his main fixation.

already, tesfaye has succumbed to one of the key pillars of the stereotyped r&b lifestyle, as his philandering is self-referenced indirectly within the first ten minutes of the mixtape.  indeed, “lonely star” immediately finds him offering the world to a nameless girl, ostensibly the same one that appeared in the more incoherent settings of house of balloons.  but the song’s hazy coda finally provides context, reducing the girl’s identity to the one day of the week tesfaye has relegated her to.  “life of the party” qualifies thursday’s place and purpose within the weeknd’s life, but the subsequent title track croons her identity more forcefully into a sense of nothingness, leaving the girl with few human qualities that aren’t sexual.

the turning point of thursday and downfall of the weeknd’s machismo swagger begins in “the zone,” arguably making it the most important track on the mixtape.  after taking a backseat to his romantic proclamations, the weeknd’s rampant codeine abuse circles to the forefront again, this time in a more heartbreaking manner than it did throughout house of balloons.  drake nearly missed the deadline for his feature on “the zone,” but his early co-sign of the weeknd morphed into an important collaboration and provided a more abstract angle into the drug-fueled illicit sexual activities that had begun to litter this new strain of r&b.

prior to “the zone,” the weeknd adopted a decidedly domineering and almost predatory tone, one he swaps out for cautionary tales and a sense of self-pity in both segments of “the birds.”  in a rare instance that straddles the line between social commentary and self-examination, tesfaye realizes the danger his persona poses and advises his object of affection to distance herself from him.  the three remaining tracks on thursday constitute yet another comedown, this time from an intense sexual endeavor as opposed to a drug-induced euphoria.  interestingly, the final song on the mixtape alludes yet again to cocteau twins, this time borrowing the title of their 1990 album heaven or las vegas instead of a sample.

the production throughout thursday is impeccable once again, with the chores falling almost exclusively on illangelo and doc mckinney.  while devoid of the discernible samples that populated house of balloonsthursday still maintains a singular mood that is incredibly emotive, particularly throughout the middle portion of the mixtape.  the bonus track that appears at the end of thursday on trilogy is called “valerie,” again more sonically and conceptually similar to the weeknd’s debut album than any of the material on his mixtapes.  the song’s inclusion at this point in the progression of trilogy is sensible – it’s a ballad sung to a girl the weeknd has wronged – yet the inclusion of a given name in the title suggests that this is someone entirely different than the thursday girl, rendering her identity a complete mystery.

Echoes of Silence

if thursday embodied in any way the stereotypical sophomore slump of a promising new artist, then echoes of silence provided sufficient redemption.  the final installment of the weeknd’s ambitious trilogy of debauchery is unquestionably the most desolate, at times transcending any conventions of r&b to explore more brooding formats like trip hop and post-dubstep.  still, it takes a moment for tesfaye to spiral into that world.

echoes of silence opens with “d.d.,” a retooling of michael jackson’s “dirty diana.”  bypassing his customary sampling of recognizable songs in favor of a straight cover may seem curious at first, but the song’s lyrical content is consistent with the illicit nature of tesfaye’s project and its selection may be a tip of the hat to the mtv critic who once likened tesfaye to the king of pop.  he certainly proves his worth from a vocal standpoint, and illangelo’s atmospheric tendencies collide with militant drums and a surging bass line to make a case for the song’s position as the strongest of the three openers throughout trilogy.

as the haunting french-canadian vocal hook of “montreal” settles in, it becomes clear that echoes of silence is the weeknd’s version of a break-up album.  more accurately, it’s an album that finds tesfaye reconciling with a loss while immediately returning to his tendencies of deception and seduction.  subtle clues like the recycled lyrics from house of balloons point to the cyclical nature of the weeknd’s thought process, but it’s the overtness of “initiation” and “xo/the host” in particular that help to drive home his incessant, never-ending abuse of oxycontin and women.

in his own deluded way, however, the weeknd does manage to finally adopt some semblance of self-awareness and a set of morals.  “next” primarily deals with his rejection of a girl based on a currently fulfilling relationship, although it’s delivered with the arrogant perception that he is desired solely based on his newfound fame and his position as the next prominent face of r&b.  perhaps the most acutely self-aware piece on the mixtape is its title track; “echoes of silence” closes out the entire mixtape trilogy, and although it’s delivered under the lyrical guise of yet another one-night stand, a more important metaphor can be extracted from the song’s plaintive mood.  instead of a back and forth dialogue between the weeknd and a nameless girl, “echoes of silence” functions more as a confessional from the weeknd to his fans, nearly begging them not to forget him as he steps away from his proliferate lifestyle in order to focus on his next project.  tesfaye finally bridges the gap between fiction and feelings, underscoring that what once may have been a fantasy has turned into a less glamorous reality.

echoes of silence is, without question, the most intimate of the weeknd’s three mixtapes, largely due to the small amount of personnel responsible for its creation.  aside from a clams casino co-production credit and juicy j’s spoken word outro on “same old song,” echoes of silence was the byproduct of a close collaboration between tesfaye and illangelo.  while still taking the project’s downtempo nature to entirely new levels on “montreal” and “echoes of silence,” illangelo had the foresight to incorporate gritty, angular distorted guitar lines into the mixtape’s overall aesthetic, perhaps a nod to the stadium-rock aura the weeknd’s live show had begun to take on.  this sensibility stretches into “till dawn (here comes the sun),” the final of the three bonus tracks on trilogy.  it’s the most consistent of the three, finally indicative of both the sonic and lyrical qualities of the mixtape it’s meant to accompany (although there’s a case to be made that the girl is using the weeknd, not the other way around).

so, what does this all mean?  nearly four years ago, a complete unknown came out of the woodwork and began the daunting task of reshaping the aesthetic of r&b, largely through the internet and by word of mouth, albeit very powerful mouths.  2007 is often cited as the year that kanye west changed the course of rap music, steering it away from the gangster lifestyle and towards one of eclecticism and vulnerability; while i hesitate to (and probably will never) put the weeknd on the same artistic level as kanye, 2011 seemed to function similarly, with how to dress well and frank ocean helping to craft modern r&b into an artistic niche as revered by critics as it is by teenagers on tumblr.

however, this new direction deviates from kanye’s rebranding from rap in the sense that it does not appear to be sustainable, at least not in its present trajectory.  it’s been more than two years since channel orange, but that album already found frank ocean pushing past r&b confines and into psychedelia, while tom krell began unabashedly experimenting with pop conventions on his latest effort as how to dress well.  of the big three, the weeknd is the only one who chose to stick almost exclusively with the brooding formula that had garnered him so much acclaim and attention, ultimately resulting in the mixed bag that was kiss land.

part of the lackluster appeal of kiss land can be attributed to tesfaye’s poor in-house retention skills.  the casual discarding of jeremy rose perhaps should have been a red flag to doc mckinney and illangelo, both of whom chose to work on creating the weeknd anyways.  mckinney noticeably disappeared from the project after thursday, leaving illangelo behind to craft echoes of silence by himself.

but illangelo proved himself to be more than capable, producing track after track uninformed and unassisted by anyone else that convincingly belonged to the weeknd’s aesthetic.  despite his long tenure and indispensable role in creating one of pop music’s most enigmatic figures in recent history, illangelo contributed nothing to kiss land.  while details on the split are beyond scarce, it’s become clear that tesfaye’s commitment issues move past the one-night stands in his music and extend to those that have helped shape his professional career.

as he prepped for a handful of cross-country tour dates, the weeknd released “king of the fall,” a standalone single that was his strongest piece of work since trilogy.  it’s indicative of his fame-induced bravado and continued abuse of nearly every substance he can get his hands on, but further on tesfaye begins to make amends and attempts to rebrand himself.  most importantly, he alludes to working with doc mckinney once again, who is to quincy jones as the weeknd is to a dark-skinned michael jackson.

the producers that worked on kiss land wasted their time trying to replicate an aura that had come almost naturally to mckinney and illangelo, and had to do so simply because tesfaye had fallen out with two of the most important instruments of his success.  if this collaboration does indeed come to fruition, it not only shows the personal and professional maturation of tesfaye but the possibility that his artistic integrity may still be salvageable.

alternative r&b, or pbr&b as it’s become known sardonically in some circles, has already become a parody of itself.  countless artists with a halfway decent croon and a computer with fruity loops try to add their brooding two cents to a stagnant conversation, dumbing down and threatening to kill what was once a promising offshoot.  kiss land may have been the biggest perpetrator in this decline, but the weeknd still holds a unique position to save face.  by reconnecting with his original collaborators, time won’t be wasted trying to replicate an outdated sound.  instead, a delayed evolution of the weeknd’s sound may very well occur, and the promising follow-up to trilogy that was initially expected might finally be delivered.  maybe.

death from above 1979 – you’re a woman, i’m a machine

last gang records

it’s hard to stress the sheer importance of this record, both on a personal and on a more holistic level.  death from above was an entirely new animal with which to wrangle when jesse f. keeler and sebastien grainger released their first ep in 2002, and the duo never seemed to take their collective foot off of the gas, even after adding the legally-obligated 1979 suffix to their moniker.

armed with nothing more than urgent vocals, frenetic drums, distorted bass lines, and the occasional synth, keeler and grainger obliterated conventional genres, creating a breed of punk rock that was just as informed by heavy metal riffs as it was by the electronic dance music keeler would explore later as one half of mstrkrft.  more importantly, death from above 1979 resonated with a multitude of people, and with me as i began to cut my teeth on independent music as a young high school freshman.

heads up was a frenzied debut; chock-full of impressive riffs, blistering tempos, and wailing confessionals, the ep distilled death from above’s mantra down to a concise fourteen minutes, but left a bit to be desired.  “dead womb” and “losing friends” were thunderous anthems, and “if we don’t make it we’ll fake it” has that woozy synth doubling the fantastic bass riff throughout the song’s outro, yet cohesion wasn’t 100% there.  after teasing lo-fi renditions of things to come on romantic rights, the duo arrived with you’re a woman, i’m a machine, their triumphant and lone studio album as a band.

as someone who has listened to the band’s catalogue to an exhaustive extent, the differences in production on you’re a woman, i’m a machine in comparison to heads up are immediate and welcoming, yet it wasn’t always easy to explain my fondness of the lp over the ep.

on opener “turn it out,” keeler’s bass already sounds fuller, something i can now attribute to better mixing and heavier prevalence on his chorus effect.  much of heads up relied on the high-output treble of keeler’s distorted tones, but you’re a woman, i’m a machine is rounder, with more of an emphasis placed on the low-end of the frequency capacity.  this doesn’t mean any sense of agitation gets diminished, however; the bass guitar squeals at the beginning of “turn it out” dispel that possibility, and grainger’s vocals enter confidently and with more coherence than his turns on heads up.

“romantic rights” remains the general pinnacle of death from above 1979’s output, and for good reason.  chronologically, this is the first song that showcases the duo’s penchant for writing sheer pop music laced with dance beats, a penchant later underscored by “blood on our hands” and “little girl.”  the infectious bass line on “romantic rights” sets the song’s tone early on, snaking through grainger’s backbeats and vocals, and is later solidified when grainger chooses to double it for the song’s chorus.  this song also moves away from the one-dimensional structure of verse-chorus riffs that dominated death from above’s back catalogue, instead firing off a rapid succession of melodic ideas throughout the back half of “romantic rights.”

both “going steady” and “go home, get down” return to the familiar formula initially championed by death from above, the important caveat being that keeler favors his synthesizer over his bass for the majority of the two songs.  the tones of the two instruments are nearly identical, but the synth allows for more deft and dexterity as keeler tackles wider, dissonant intervallic leaps throughout the chorus of “go home, get down.”

while lyrics often play second fiddle to the duo’s overpowering instrumental force, it’s worth noting that grainger did occasionally put quite a bit of energy into his poetry; the most readily-available example on you’re a woman, i’m a machine is “black history month.”  shying away from the usual tropes of lust, love, and heartbreak, grainger instead paints a dystopian picture of a city devoid of culture.  although sparse and rather simplistic in nature, lyrics like “do you remember a time when this pool was / a great place for water wings and cannonballs” pack a nostalgic punch and provide a cautionary tale just as pertinent now as it was ten years ago.

on the reverse side of the lyrical coin is “little girl,” a song that revolves around various permutations of “lady,” “baby,” and “save me,” but the sacrifice is more than necessary in order to provide ample attention to keeler’s bass lines, his most dance-heavy attempts yet.  the ostinato has the ability to test large amounts of patience, depending on one’s mindset, but it ultimately is a tool of tension-and-release, with the release point coming in the form of the rapidly descending line supporting the chorus.  augmented by a pulsating disco beat and escalating vocal wails, “little girl” arguably embodies the ethos of you’re a woman, i’m a machine to the simplest of extremes.

deep within the album lies death from above 1979’s best one-two-three punch.  “cold war” is exceptionally agitated, alternating between a frantic emphasis on all beats of the four/four meter and a heavy back-beat as lyrical ideas are exchanged (in live settings, keeler and grainger scream the sections to each other, but on the record the vocal timbres are too similar to positively differentiate), and features the heart-wrenchingly earnest line “if you love him know / or if you leave him tell him so” wailed over and over again until the jittering, syncopated breakdown halts all emotions.

the album’s title track is a repentant song about unrequited love, unique in the fact that the narrator is the rejector as opposed to the rejected.  the front half of the song showcases keeler’s endurance on the bass while the back half demonstrates his love for arpeggiation and serves as a second of relative relaxation before the duo plunges into “pull out,” the most raucous and unabashed number in their arsenal.  the subject matter is explicit in both definitions of the word, and the album climaxes to cacophony as grainger screams “let your spirit free” repeatedly.

named after an obscure reference from the simpsons, “sexy results” is the clear outlier on you’re a woman, i’m a machine, appropriately tagged at the album’s end.  i’ve always wrestled with the purpose of the song and its inclusion on the record, but the more i listen to it – both in context and out of – “sexy results” seems to already forecast the duo’s unrest and signifies a rejection of the durational confines previously placed on their music.

it’s the danciest of the eleven songs on the record, but it’s also the furthest removed from the pop sensibilities that inform their other dance-oriented tracks.  in terms of discussions surrounding how an album transcends its melodic and harmonic components and becomes a piece of work that “means something” or “has meaning,” this song definitely has a place at the table, but it’s constantly changing seats.

now i guess it’s time to have that discussion, or at least a snippet of it: what you’re a woman, i’m a machine means outside of the notes pressed to wax.  in the mid-2000s, this music was abrasive, hinging on the riffage made popular by post-punk revivalists but sounding sonically more similar to a rabid bastard child of queens of the stone age and lightning bolt (indeed, death from above toured with the former in 2005 and keeler was rumored to become the band’s next touring bassist, but to no avail).  yet at the same time, it spoke volumes to musicians who had like-minded ideas to create maximal sound with minimal instrumentation; i can’t help but think that at least part of this ethos helped inspire fellow compatriots japandroids, who choose to assault with six strings instead of four.

on a smaller scale, coming of age musically while you’re a woman, i’m a machine was still relatively fresh remains a crucial component of my musical education.  the songs are timeless, never losing their edge or their significance, and they frequently conjure up memories of friendships founded or sustained based on mutual appreciation of death from above 1979, as well as all of the odd summer jobs and awkward stages that predominated my high school tenure.

it remains to be such an important album that, when abrasive music had long fallen from my preferred listening choices, i was beyond excited to hear the duo was reuniting after a five-year hiatus in 2011, and positively ecstatic to learn that their long-awaited sophomore album, the physical world, will drop in september.  it’s impossible to predict the level of impact that record will have, but if lead single “trainwreck 1979” is any indication, the physical world is probably capable of holding its own.  at the very least, its impending release gives diehard fans a topical excuse to revisit an agitated masterpiece.

voxtrot – raised by wolves & mothers, sisters, daughters & wives

cult hero records

“heavy rotation” took a hiatus that it shouldn’t have.  to compensate for this error, this month’s segment examines two works instead of one, albeit works that complement one another quite well.  again, all apologies.

around this time last year, i published a testimonial detailing my personal experience with and love for the now-defunct texas indie-pop outfit voxtrot.  you can read that account here, and you can rest assured that those sentiments are still relevant.  voxtrot’s music was consistently intellectual on both major musical fronts and demonstrated the nearly infinite possibilities within relatively slim confines.  that may seem like a paradoxical notion, but if you’ve noticed my critiques of albums you’ll have noticed that i’m a huge sucker for an expansive palate.  i’m more likely to bite on an album that has an apparent unified aesthetic with hidden nuances waiting to be found than i am to take on an ambitious album that courageously bounds in six or seven distinct directions.  voxtrot’s basic musical identity was all but completely formed from the get-go, and it really only took one ep for it to solidify.

2005’s raised by wolves is twenty-three minutes of pure, well-crafted pop music.  such purity and devotion to a single genre is rare to find now and certainly wasn’t common nearly ten years ago, but what always strikes me is the utter aplomb this ep contains.  ramesh srivastava nearly shows his full lyrical hand on the opening lines of the ep’s title track, instantly spouting metaphors and embarking on a long and detailed narration, his first of many.

the subsequent song, “the start of something,” is a piece of work that still holds up as one of the best pop songs i’ve ever heard, four years after it graced my ears for the first time.  its chord progression and overall structure are strikingly simple, allowing srivastava to weave a complex confessional that borders on creepy over a conventional verse-chorus format.  underneath is a jangly guitar line bolstered by piano stabs and persistent drums, creating the bare-bones foundation of voxtrot’s indie pop palate.  the guitar interlude that creeps in towards the middle is infectious to say the least, and the piano gets more ambitious during the third verse, adding subtle fills in between cadential points.  the clincher for me is always the soft cello that enters during the build to the coda, and the mournful guitar slides that eventually are layered on top.

the most underwhelming moment on raised by wolves unfortunately comes right in the middle, but it highlights the only slight growing pain voxtrot needed to overcome.  “missing pieces” just feels too long; clocking in at over five minutes, the song could easily strip away some of the instrumental build-up without sacrificing an important srivastava verse.

luckily, the band redeems themselves with “long haul,” a relaxing mid-tempo jam with round bell tones, chiming guitar arpeggios, and a prominent bass line.  musically, it’s voxtrot’s most mature effort on the entire ep.  raised by wolves ends solidly with “wrecking force,” the aggression of the tube-driven guitars compensating for the song’s somewhat-suspect length.  although not without its fair share of hiccups, raised by wolves proved to be an above-average first outing for voxtrot, and one that showed ample room for growth.

cult hero records

the following year found voxtrot releasing their second effort, mothers, sisters, daughters & wives.  whether or not the title’s absent oxford comma was intentional remains unclear, but the ep certainly showed marked improvements in the band’s sound.  while all five songs on raised by wolves were at least four minutes long, the quintet on mothers, sisters, daughters & wives is comparatively short; only two tracks venture beyond the four-minute mark, putting the collection more squarely within the confines of traditional pop.

the ep begins in a similar fashion, with an ambitious title track, but it’s easy to tell that the music is more finely woven, with stacks of interplaying guitars and independent bass lines that almost function as countermelodies.  this intricacy continues with “fast asleep,” a song that crams arpeggios and pianos effortlessly into a sub-three-minute setting, and one that has the gall to divert sharply to an unpredicted orchestral coda.  all the tropes remain without voxtrot running the risk of losing its luster.

one of srivastava’s best turns as a lyricist occurs on “rise up in the dirt,” a cautionary tale about the perils of adulthood and society’s expectations.  i’ve always maintained that srivastava’s lyrics are more prose than they are poetry, as if his personal journal was somehow inadvertently bound by meter and rhythm.

it’s unclear whether he is assuming the role of a character or is actually speaking of himself on “rise up in the dirt,” but lines like “it seems that we used to live like rebels / but now we get scared like our parents” and the simple statement of “i believe in love, i’m married to my work” resonate with listeners, no matter how uncomfortable the truth may be.  although he traces a dark and unsatisfying reality, srivastava’s unabashed romanticism can’t help but sneak in at the end of the song, affirming that “somewhere in the darkness / you will find love baby / you will find love” and perhaps one will return to a state of youth as well.

this flirtation with polarity, with examining personal apocalypses under the pretense of creating pop songs, continues on “four long days,” one of the bleaker songs in voxtrot’s catalogue.  slide guitar laments and a string section reflect the melancholy of srivastava’s lyrics, which contain fantastically chilling turns such as “watching tv, and flirting with fate / he drank my cold soul under the table” and the abrupt closing line “and then you feel the hot sun beating down, and you start to cry,” leaving this tortured couple’s story as confusing and unresolved as it was to begin with.

“soft & warm” is the ep’s closing number and consistently rivals “the start of something” as voxtrot’s magnum opus.  the piano-driven track is unabashed in its instrumentation choices, employing string sections alongside bombastic, fuzzed-out bass lines and weaving trombone melodic figures through jangly guitar riffs.  the lyrics are full of colloquials, metaphors, and every other trademark srivastava consciously uses, but the song’s meaning is painfully obvious: it’s an examination of a failed relationship that hasn’t yet been terminated, punctuated by the heartbreaking line “baby i’d leave you for the person you used to be.”

if you’ve taken the time to read the other op/ed i’ve written about voxtrot (hyperlinked again here for convenience), you know that these songs – this collection specifically – stir up very vivid images of the past.  typically, they haven’t been images that i’ve coped well with, but as i get older and become more and more removed from that situation, these songs make more sense to me, and i start to embody them in new, perhaps more sensible ways.  voxtrot is a gem of the pop world that remains surprisingly hidden, and everyone would do well to track down their catalogue.  alliterations and musical integrity aside, their work showcases basic human emotion that is incredibly easy to identify with.  at the very least, the songs will make you dance.

message for address: my year in the eau claire house show scene

glassworks improv performing during playhouse fest at the glassworks playhouse. may, 2014.

the final two shows at the glassworks playhouse are in the books.  the softly, house will be holding its last extravaganza on friday, and my departure from involvement with the hudson house is very imminent.  naturally, it’s time for some reflection.  house shows and house parties are nothing new in any town, especially not eau claire.  the diy scene here may fluctuate in prevalence on a year-to-year basis, but there is never a marked recession.  last school year was my first exposure to the inner workings of the eau claire music scene, and it was a fairly slow learning process.  from what i gather, private performance spaces were scant; pussy haus hosted a handful of shows before permanently shutting its doors, and the short-lived camomile lawn played host to a couple of intimate living-room performances.  as i navigated the performance options for my fledgling band, i discovered that the only other places to play were the music venue on campus – which often requires booking months in advance – and a handful of bars around town.

the latter of these two public spaces underscores a prevailing problem with the music scene in eau claire: the decided lack of free, all-ages venues around town.  my bandmates and i were all under the age of twenty-one when we began playing bars – the only venues available to book with a decent turnaround time – and most of our friends couldn’t legally drink, either.  turnout from our fan base was never very high.  things began to change in the summer of 2013.  we moved into an old, turn-of-the-century house with an enormous living room perfectly suited for house shows, and our new friends in softly, dear opened up their basement as a performance venue as well.  right alongside us were the kids from glassworks, a long-form improv trio whose routines compliment musical acts quite nicely.  they had also rented a house together, and proceeded to turn their basement into the glassworks playhouse.

north house (left) and poozer (right) tag team a set in the softly, dear basement. april, 2014.

simply put, i don’t think there is a concrete number available for the amount of shows that took place at these three venues over the past year.  i will be the first to admit that the hudson house hosted few in comparison (additional hiccups occur with ground-level performances and elderly neighbors), but we averaged about one a month.  what was true across the board, regardless of venue, was the overwhelming turnout and continuous positive reception that surrounded each show.  common sense may dictate that the best times to host shows would be during the weekend, but forty people were just as likely to pack a basement on a tuesday night as they were on a friday night.

part of the draw was the tremendous fortune we often had of having out-of-town bands join the bills.  most hailed from southern wisconsin or the twin cities area and were passing through on tour, but occasionally we connected with artists from as far away as florida (see: austin miller).  on a very basic level, this fused a pleasant amount of contrast into our own local scene, but positive references from many of these bands caused the house show circuit’s stock to rise significantly.  a large tip of the hat is in order for the networking skills of alex adkinson, dave power, and johanne swanson, all of whom actively sought out or enthusiastically referred acts to play at one of the venues in town.

hounds before lions album release show in the hudson house living room. november, 2013.

perhaps most importantly, the house show scene in eau claire built a sense of musical camaraderie over the past year that i’ve never experienced before, and may never again.  each show knew no genre limitations; it was just as likely to feature one of the many local electronic artists as it was to happen upon purveyors of hip-hop, or any of the bands playing their own unique brand of indie rock.  further underscoring this diversity has been the constant support and promotion artists give to one another.  i was also personally exposed to a lot of music i don’t think i would have found in any other fashion, such as hannah hebl‘s soulful output, the off-kilter art rap of sayth, and the intricate folk-tinged music provided by rivers.

i’m still blown away by the amount of effort that continuously went into building and sustaining this microcosm over the past year, and i’m glad i was able to play a small role.  armed with nothing more than facebook events and word-of-mouth dissemination, house shows in eau claire became an excellent outlet for musicians to perform in a free, all-ages location.  over time, the tagline “message for address” became almost a formality; even if the exact numerical assignment wasn’t known, many people could pick out the unassuming houses for what they really were: a performance space.  i’m certainly not the voice of everyone who’s participated in this community – my opinion is just one of many – but the consensus has always felt very positive.

while the house show scene here in eau claire will inevitably slow down after the closures of both the glassworks playhouse and the softly, house, it won’t grind to a halt.  the hudson house will continue to serve as a performance space, and already has some upcoming shows in the works.  just as an example, emily reo and cuddle formation will be stopping by in the middle of june, a show that should be attended at all costs.  furthermore, the guys from glassworks have plans to rent a new house together after they return from tour this summer, and hope to host shows through december of this year.  hudson street boutique, the eau claire-oriented tumblr offshoot of dimestore saints, will continue, and i’ll be posting information on as many local shows as i can via the site’s twitter handle.  eau claire will always be on my mind, especially after i move away.  there are too many bands to acknowledge and extend gratitude to individually, so i hope a blanketed thanks will suffice.  you all know who you are.  seriously, thank you.

heavy rotation: rage against the machine – evil empire

the mid-1990s certainly could be described as a tumultuous time in the field of music, but i was too busy reading dr. seuss and playing with legos to really notice.  my parents raised me on a pretty steady diet of stan getz, dexter gordon, and classical music on npr; aside from the soundtrack to the commitments and a cranberries album, there wasn’t much in the way of current pop music in the house.  there definitely wasn’t even a whiff of rage against the machine to be found anywhere; even though they’re fairly liberal, brash politically-charged music didn’t exactly behoove two newly-minted academics working at a state university.  that’s understandable.

i don’t recall the precise circumstances that led me to rage against the machine, but i know it was sometime during my junior high years.  probably someone older than me was really into radical political ideology and i heard about them through the grapevine, but i can’t be sure.  anyways, i never saw my interest in the band as being grounded in politics.  at this point in my life i was predominantly listening to linkin park and snippets of commercial radio, but my thirteen year-old self was already growing tired of this mindless repetition.  i must have been tempted by the promise that rage against the machine was equal parts rap and metal, two genres i considered myself to be equally familiar with.

i worked mostly backwards through the band’s catalogue because my local best buy was rather poorly stocked, at least in my opinion.  i specify with “mostly” because even though a backtracking would indicate that i digested evil empire before their 1992 self-titled debut, that wasn’t the case.  my long-standing infatuation with live at the grand olympic auditorium and the songs the band included in their (at the time) final two set lists led me to believe that the bulk of their worthwhile music was contained within the battle of los angeles and that their nostalgic anthems were littered across rage against the machine.  by the time i did get around to evil empire, the songs fell flat for the most part and didn’t match up to what my expectations of rage against the machine had become.

as time passed and my musical horizons broadened, i largely left rage against the machine stored away in the fonder sections of my memory.  this was the band whose guitarist had primarily inspired me to start learning the instrument and whose frontman had exposed me to a dynamic stage persona as well as the importance of smart lyrics, but other artists were starting to fuel my artistic development in a more direct way and my overall palate was becoming less aggressive.  every once in awhile i would revisit the band for one reason or another, but the nostalgic trips never quite measured up to the original experience.

an unforeseen consequence of these forays was an increased immersion in and appreciation of evil empire as a part of rage against the machine’s discography.  a hesitancy to accept the album due to its comparative lack of familiarity turned into an understanding of its role in shaping the band’s musical trajectory.  while their self-titled debut certainly conformed to the basic definition of rap-metal, rage against the machine took a sharp left turn with evil empire.  elements of rap and elements of metal are undoubtedly present throughout the album, but they don’t always work in tandem; rather, evil empire feels more like a hip-hop album with heavy guitar riffs that occasionally crop up.

morello’s guitar playing had to change to fit this mold, and he executed the task by beginning to create the eclectic sound now so commonly associated with him.  he forgoes playing a single note on guitar in “people of the sun,” instead choosing to rub an allen wrench across the strings to create a unique timbral effect.  even when he does play riffs (which are found nearly everywhere else on the album), they often tend to be narrow and repetitive, essentially creating a live rendition of a sample for de la rocha to rap over.  equally important to the sound of evil empire is the prominent role of tim commerford’s bass lines.  the clean tone is swapped out in favor of increased amounts of distortion, fattening the overall tone of the band.  his opening line in “tire me” absolutely snarls and never loses momentum, while his role in “without a face” helps make the song one of rage’s funkiest.

the lyrics on evil empire can’t go unaddressed, either.  while rage against the machine was defined by angst, aggression, and de la rocha’s burgeoning talent as an emcee, its successor reads with a bit more finesse and use of metaphor, and even hints of the pensive reflection and anguish that would later be fully developed on the battle of los angeles’ “born of a broken man” and “maria.”  de la rocha voices his support for the zapatista movement, his disdain for cops, and the perils of right-wing radio all within the first ten minutes of the album, but the most powerful aspect of the album is the triptych of songs beginning with “tire me.”  easily the most musically diverse sequence throughout evil empire, de la rocha seethes commentary about 1970s foreign policy, gets downright militant about economic disparity, and supplies a first-person account of race relations in the united states.

other musicians may be defined by their political and social activism, but few can manage the variety of topics so thoroughly and effectively explored by rage against the machine.  largely devoid of profanity and slightly more subdued, evil empire conveyed this ideology in just as convincing of a manner while employing a heightened sense of musical intrigue.  that’s why, even a number of years later, the once black sheep of the band’s discography is now my first stop whenever i feel the need for a nostalgic fix.

heavy rotation: wilco – a ghost is born

wilco a ghost is born“heavy rotation” is a new monthly long-form piece designed to infuse dimestore saints with more intellectual writing.  while much of the content on this website is dedicated towards brand new and impending releases, music from previous years still carries a lot of merit.  each installment of this segment will examine an album that has been listened to frequently over the past month.  i’ll try my best not to ramble.

my musical relationship with wilco is rather new.  i’ve owned yankee hotel foxtrot for years, as i considered it to be a part of the early twenty-first century’s pantheon of indie rock, but i was never enamored by it, and i never felt a strong emotional connection to it.  i guess that doesn’t really surprise me; it takes quite a bit for a body of music to resonate with me on that level, but i’m still able of recognizing and appreciating immensely talented musicians when i hear them.  the culture of blind acceptance surrounding that record was always – and still is – quite off-putting to me; it joined the company of neutral milk hotel’s in an aeroplane over the sea, radiohead’s kid a, and arcade fire’s funeral, becoming a blindingly accepted need-to-know classic.  for the record, i adore neutral milk hotel, rank ok computer and in rainbows as my two favorite radiohead albums, and have honestly never caught the arcade fire fever, although i did enjoy neon bible.  knowing that my personal variance in taste did not comply with what was becoming standard in certain cultures who fancied themselves experts on the genesis of indie rock, i was hesitant to approach yankee hotel foxtrot, or even wilco’s discography in general, for that matter.

last summer, one of my roommates bought a copy of the whole love.  as i heard that record spinning on the turntable in our living room, something triggered the resurgence of the wilco bug: a feeling i had always felt somewhat impure for never having up until that point.  in all honesty, it was probably nels cline’s guitar solo in “art of almost,” but it got me listening again.  after digesting the band’s most current offering, i felt it wise to revisit the magnum opus i had long been suspicious of.  sure enough, the umpteenth time was the charm, or so goes my version of the saying.  i wasn’t ready to accept the album as the unblemished piece of porcelain perfection certain publications made it out to be, but i could concede to its influential nature and could certainly appreciate its musical nuances more so than i was able to at the age of sixteen.  my waning skepticism and waxing intrigue progressed, over the next few months, to a point where i couldn’t pass up a “used” copy of wilco’s 2004 album a ghost is born when i saw it at a record shop last month.

i put “used” in quotations because i’m convinced that, apart from the external packaging being removed, the album was never touched.  if you still remember cds, you’ll recall the slightly resistant metallic click that occurs when a disc is removed from its casing for the first time; hearing that noise was unexpected but welcomed, because i can’t complain about getting a brand new record for five dollars.  after praying that my computer wouldn’t ingest the disc while i burned it onto my itunes, i put a ghost is born on my iphone, plugged in my headphones, and started listening.

the sense of urgency across a ghost is born is apparent from the first soulful guitar interjections on “at least that’s what you said.”  as they transform into a tortured, forlorn solo before finally burning out, they also succeed in evoking the first sustained emotion i’ve ever experienced while listening to wilco.  those emotions really get contextualized after doing a bit of research and learning about jeff tweedy’s tumultuous personal life during this time, and he channels those issues in his first true foray into playing lead guitar for wilco.  slow-burning, introspective a-side cuts like “hell is chrome” and “muzzle of bees” reflect the sentiment attributed to the record, but i think tweedy’s capacity to create a bonafide rock album in spite of an available emotive crutch is equally noteworthy.

a song like “spiders (kidsmoke),” clocking in at nearly eleven minutes, inevitably carries the possibility of being a derivative jam that causes an album to lose its focus early on.  it’s pulsating dance groove doesn’t exactly immediately plead its case for consideration, but the overall structure of “spiders (kidsmoke)” is imperative to the subsequent tone of a ghost is born.  the first third of the song is comparatively subdued; flying under the radar is what tweedy does best, and he’s able to deliver some of his signature off-kilter lyrics before the texture of instrumentation gets too thick.  when the main riff finally kicks in around the four-minute mark, it’s bolstered by an acoustic piano timbre that recalls “hell is chrome” and foreshadows “hummingbird.”  when chord qualities change three minutes later the harmonic shift is again led by the piano, further underscoring its importance to the timbre and overall direction of the record, and the counter-melody that alters the main riff just before the song ends is attributed to the piano as well.  for someone who relied so heavily on the acoustic guitar to create his first heavily-lauded body of work, tweedy’s abandonment of it as a rhythmic tool is curious, but it’s also what makes a ghost is born such a singular offering in the band’s discography.

even the mid-tempo songs in the middle of the album, ones like “wishful thinking” and “company in my back” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a yankee hotel foxtrot setting, don’t fall back on that proven formula; if anything, they flip the formula on its head and use the stringed instruments purely for color while the piano mindlessly dictates the rhythm of the song.  somehow, all of this resonates deeply with me.  the somber opening and cataclysmic guitar solo in “at least that’s what you said” leave all subsequent tracks open to a wide variety of possibilities, most of which wind up being covered.  there’s the brief, reckless abandon of “i’m a wheel,” the tongue-in-cheek lyrical nature of “the late greats,” and the ambient, quarter-hour doozy “less than you think,” which is a supreme exercise in sound manipulation confined to a time span ideal for processing all of the antecedent tracks.

i don’t consider myself an expert on wilco, nor will i ever attempt to become one.  these are just the thoughts that have run through my brain over the course of the past month, and they’ll probably develop more coherently and cohesively as time goes on.  mental exercises like this are always good practice, even if the resulting outcome yields nothing groundbreaking.  for this one article on a ghost is born, i’m sure countless more could be written on every other album in the band’s discography, which is fantastic.  subjectivity, when not marred by baselessness, is one of the most beautiful byproducts of music.  thanks for reading, and be sure to check back around the middle of march for the second installment of “heavy rotation.”