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by Matt White

15 Jan 2009

“They put me down for fuckin’ around with things I didn’t understand… for getting involved with something I shouldn’t have been involved with… well, FUCK THEM.”
—Neil Young, in the biography Shakey

In 1982 Neil Young released the album Trans, a synthesizer heavy, electronic rock album with Young’s vocals rendered virtually unrecognizable by use of a vocoder on all but three of the nine songs. At the time it was a commercial and critical flop but in recent years has begun to be reassessed and appreciated, if for nothing else the boldness of such a release from a mainstream artist, another example of Young’s total commitment to doing exactly what he wants, when he wants.

It’s easy to dismiss Trans (and much electronic music) as “cold” or lacking in emotion due to its synthesized drum machine beats and robot sounding vocals. This would be a mistake. Trans is one of Young’s most personal, heartfelt, and affecting albums of his career. In 1982 Young was going through an incredibly trying time in his personal life. His son Ben had been born with severe cerebral palsy, rendering him quadriplegic and non-verbal. Neil couldn’t understand his son’s words, so he made an album where the listener can’t understand the singer’s words.

Perhaps the most well-known song from Trans, probably due to it’s inclusion in Neil Young’s 1993 performance on MTV Unplugged, is “Transformer Man”. The only song on the album to not feature a single guitar, it is driven by a drum machine, keyboards and Neil’s voice processed to a computerized falsetto by the vocoder. It has a serene, lilting quality to it that immediately defies the cliché of synth-pop as “cold”. The song benefits from the vocoder immensely, the vocal sounding like a sad cry from the deep reaches of space. The keyboards are warm and unassuming, the drum machine beat is simple but the emotional punch of the song comes from what Young is singing.

A long time train aficionado, one of the ways Neil was able to connect to his son was through model trains. He even developed a remote control that enabled Ben to properly use the trains on their tracks. With this knowledge it becomes immediately apparent when you hear the lyrics (although reading along with a lyric sheet might help) that Transformer Man is Ben: “You run the show / Remote control / Direct the action with the push of a button / You’re a transformer man”. The most touching moment comes in the chorus, when Young sings “Every morning when I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you”. It is at this point that the song becomes, in my opinion, one of the most moving songs of Neil Young’s career.

Neil never pursued electronic music further after Trans and I think it’s kind of a shame. I would love to hear what Neil Young in 2009 would do with the genre. Knowing Young’s penchant for bucking preconceived notions, an electronic album might not be that improbable.

by PopMatters Staff

15 Jan 2009

Neko Case
People Got a Lotta Nerve [MP3] from Middle Cyclone [3 March]

Everyday [MP3] from Tight Knit [17 February]

Handsome Furs
I’m Confused [MP3] from Face Control [10 March]

Cut Off Your Hands
Turn Cold [MP3] from You & I [20 January]

The Black Lips
Starting Over [MP3] from 200 Million Thousand [24 February]

Fol Chen
No Wedding Cake [MP3] from Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made [17 February]

La Llorona [Video]

Sing Fang Bous
Clangour and Flutes [Video]

by Mike Deane

14 Jan 2009

The world of music journalism is on board with the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and rightly so; it’s a varied, dense and accessible piece of weird-pop wonder. On it, there is one song in particular that I need to listen to five to 10 times a day because it makes me feel that good. I speak, of course, of “Summertime Clothes”

The song begins with some odd, pulsing, syncopating keys, then thumping bass joins in to smooth out the pulsations, making it a head-nodder by the 20-second mark. The song progresses nicely; when the layers of vocals begin the song gains some momentum and depth without taking any drastic steps. Then the vocal harmony starts and brings the song into Brian Wilson territory (or perhaps, more aptly, the excellent Brian Wilson aping of 2007’s Panda Bear album), and once the vocal inflection hits on the “makes me smile” line we know we’re in the land of Pop Monster-Jams. 

The chorus hits almost without warning sending a rush of emotion that makes me want to throw my arms in the in time to the “dusty but digital” electro-lushness. By the time “I want to walk around with you / And I want to walk around with you” (is that a direct refutation of the Ramones?) comes in, it’s a bit disappointing that the chorus has already ended, but there’s still the exciting anticipation of its return.

by Bill Gibron

14 Jan 2009

For some reason, the thriller/action/adventure genre just doesn’t get the same respect as the dour drama or the high minded epic. It seems like, the minute you introduce violence and mayhem into the mix, people assume that everything involved has been reduced down to the lowest of all the common denominators. In some cases, that’s more than true. Not a single installment of the Saw franchise can pass by a Cineplex without accenting its atrocities with endless reams of routines slash and burn nu-metal. Similarly, anything featuring cops, criminals, bullets, and the slo-mo battle between all three has to rely on faux electronica to amplify the already cheap and clichéd thrills. Perhaps that’s why the entire entertainment category gets a bad rap - not only do the storylines follow a set stack of studio-stated strategies, but the backdrop has to be equally derivative as well. 

In this installment of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at three new soundtracks, each one hoping to break out of the sonic stereotyping inherent in their creation. Luckily, all but one actually makes it out alive. The take on James Cameron’s Terminator series might seem like insignificant, small screen stuff, but Bear McCreary really delivers on the sci-fi thriller dynamics. Sadly, the approach taken by Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a lot like how the filmmakers addressed the lack of leading lady Kate Beckinsdale in this second sequel. They just substituted in something - or in this case, someone - else. Finally, an oldie but a goodie arrives in the form of The Dead Pool, the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s last appearance as “Dirty” Harry Callahan (that is, if you don’t count Gran Torino). Like any product of its time, it evokes the best and worst of the era it was created in.

In each case, we aren’t looking at something sonically significant or aurally outstanding. Instead, each score settles in with the rest of its connected entertainment’s low rent sentiments and adds what it can, beginning with:

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Original Television Soundtrack [rating: 8]

With a name like Bear McCreary, you’re destined for a lot of things: professional wrestler; bounty hunter; TV adventure host, cutting room floor character from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Scoring hour long network series wouldn’t necessarily be high on the list. Yet the man with a bruin for a moniker has been setting sci-fi TV straight since he took the reigns of Battlestar Galactica back in 2006. As a result, the in-demand composer has handled other speculative series like Eureka! and genre efforts like Rest Stop and Wrong Turn 2. With such a resume, it’s no surprise then that he currently helms the backdrop for Fox’s Terminator take, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Unlike most big to small screen translations, critics have been fairly impressed with the way in which the weekly serial handles the well known Cameron classic - and some of that praise has been passed on to McCreary. One listen to the soundtrack CD confirms his abilities.

Things start out rockin’ - literally - as Garbage’s Shirley Manson shows up to belt out the slow burn stomp “Sampson and Delilah”. While not written by McCreary, his arrangement fits the show’s sentiments perfectly. We also get a track from BrEadan’s Band called “Ain’t We Famous”. It too is a lot of fun. From there on, it’s all Bear, and it’s all wildly entertaining and evocative. “Sarah Connor’s Theme” does a nice job of complementing the character, while “The Hand of God”, “Atomic Al’s Merry Melody”, and “There’s a Storm Coming” are all standout tracks. Sure, there are times when Brad Fiedel’s original melodies for The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day make an appearance, and entries like “Highway Battle”, “Central America” and “Motorcycle Robot Chase” all have the standard banal style suggested by their title. But as an example of large scope sound on a small scale budget, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is very good indeed.

The Dead Pool - The Original Score [rating: 6]

In 1988, Clint Eastwood was only 58. Still, many had written him off as a one note aging action hero whose better days lay a big steamy plate of spaghetti westerns away from his ‘current’ craggy persona. Now, 20 years after the fact, he’s one of our most respected actors and filmmakers. Funny what a series of stellar directorial jobs will do, along with a few supplementary Oscars. Still, The Dead Pool was viewed as a kind of career swan song, the end to Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry character and a franchise that hadn’t been viable since Sudden Impact, five years earlier. Yet the story of a secret list of celebrity targets, and the killer trying to complete the catalog, served Eastwood and his persona well. It was a nominal hit, and reminded Hollywood that older men could indeed carry off thrillers just as capably as younger ones. It’s a lesson Tinsel Town has taken to heart as of late, right Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis?

As a score, Lalo Schifrin’s work on The Dead Pool is highly reminiscent of the mid to late ‘80s. There’s faux “Axel F” (“Main Title”), a jazzy synth look at the city by the Bay (“San Francisco Night”), and lots of divergent, sonic cues. Both “The Rules and “The Car” offer up standard crime drama dynamics, while “The Last Autograph” is like a symphonic hodgepodge of conflicting cinematic emotions. Knowing Eastwood’s penchant for the original American artform, there are a couple of nifty combo workouts (“Something in Return”, “The Pool”) and there’s a haunting reprise of “Night” at the end (“The Pier, The Bridge, and the Bay”). All throughout, Schifrin keeps things tense and arcane, mixing melody lines with atonal intervals and occasional twists to keep the listener - and one presumes, the viewer of the film - off kilter and alert. While it won’t match some of Eastwood’s earlier or later works, at least the score for The Dead Pool was a winner.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

That’s right - Kate Beckinsdale is out. It may look like her in the trailers and coming soon materials for this tepid terror action film, but that’s remarkable lookalike (and DOOMSDAY lead) Rhona Mitra taking over for the absent Selene. Sure, our new heroine is actually returning in the role of Sonja, but it’s obvious she’s acting like a comely Kate substitute. As a matter of fact, much of this unnecessary sequel seems unoriginal and redundant. We get more of the standard story about vampires vs. werewolves, lots of hyper stylized violence, and a couple of English actors who should know better - Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy - cashing outrageously large paychecks. It would be nice to say that the soundtrack to this Gothic goof was filled with the kind of compositional cheese that lifts everything up a few kitschy camp notches. Instead, producers have gone the nauseating NIN route, recycling Reznor-esque material from 15 years ago and considering it original movie macabre fodder.

Almost everything here is a remix (and a ‘Renholder’ remix at that). With band names like Puscifer, Alkaline Trio, Genghis Tron, and Combichrist, you get an instant idea of the kind of sonic situation you’re dealing with. All the material here meshes metal with electronica, attempting to make the call and response chaos sound melodic and meaningful. Instead, it plays like Gary Numan having a conniption fit. Not everything here is awful - “Hole in the Earth” by the Deftones has some power, and “Tick Tick Tomorrow” by From First to Last offers up a wonderfully weird experience. But material like “Broken Lungs” by Thrice and “Miss Murder” by AFI is imitative, noisy, and unsettling. Maybe this is good for a film where monsters battle each other in overly choreographed examples of CGI carnage, but only 14 year olds with open iPod space need apply. Rock has sure come a long way from Zeppelin, Maiden, Crue, Priest, and GnR. While this bleak Bauhaus bombast may be someone’s sonic cup of tea, it doesn’t make for a meaningful film score.

by Rob Horning

14 Jan 2009

I generally have my portable MP3 player on shuffle, playing random songs from a 5,000-track grab bag. In effect, this makes my device an ad hoc radio station, and as such, I find that it requires radio edits of songs that will be wrenched out of whatever context they originally garnered from their place on an album. I used to scorn the radio edits of songs—the truncated version of “Green-Eyed Lady” is especially egregious, as is the radio edit of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” in the original and disgraceful CD issue of Tusk. But now I am seeing their usefulness. When yo are not listening to the songs in the environment they were designed for, you must adapt them to suit your particular circumstances.

At first, for me, this was a matter of removing things like the tedious sound-clip intros on Wu-Tang Clan songs, and removing unnecessary space from the beginning and end of songs that once were hidden bonus tracks on CDs. (What a horrible trend that was.) Then I found that I had started to remove boring musical intros and long fades—the sonorous organ solo at the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” and the drum machine loops at the end of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend,” for instance.

Emboldened, I now have even started to remove parts of songs I don’t like no matter where they fall—that pointless drony part in Nirvana’s “Drain You,” the noise solo in Pere Ubu’s “The Modern Dance” and so on. Who has the time? Just give me the hooks.

When I first began doing this, I felt like a philistine tampering with the artistic vision embodied in these songs. Before I could re-edit them, I had to deal with them as they were, as did everyone else. We could only differ in our interpretations and opinions about what we heard. Now we can all make our own customized versions—the triumph of read/write culture! (Tom Slee makes some skeptical remarks about read/write culture in this review of Lawrence Lessig’s Remix—the key one, I think, is that hobbies in the digital age have become more subject to depersonalized commodification because the internet is eroding face-to-face interaction in localized, hobby-based economies—what he calls small-scale culture. The internet can entice us with a limitless audience, prompting us to underrate, or worse, ignore, the ready-made audience of friends and family we would have had without it.)

Gradually, I ceased to have any qualms about my song re-editing. Now I wonder if I am going to end up in Girl Talk territory, composing my own Stars on 45 mashups, or somewhere even more radical. And I wonder if this is a good thing, a liberation from top-down, culture-industry domination. I wonder if I am making laudable strides toward making my consumption more like production.

Consumption always is production, in the sense that we are reproducing ourselves (reconstituting our labor power, as Marx would have it). The problem is that even though I am being “productive,”  I reproduce myself precisely as a consumer, an identity I alternately dread and wallow in. That’s not what I’m usually hoping to accomplish when I exhibit a bias toward “being productive”: I’m thinking instead about trying not being passive in the face of the onslaught of data and products and messages and images and such, but trying to engage it actively—usually in a doomed-to-fail attempt to manage it all. (Hence so much of my “leisure” time is spent on organizational tasks.)

But the problem with consumerism may lie specifically in that kind of engagement with cultural goods, particularly when it fails to bring the pleasure that it seems to promise or delivers the pleasure in addictive microdoses that create prolonged interludes of suffering want. In such productive “creative” activity, I am still reproducing myself with consumerism’s preferred tools and reinforcing in myself the desires that it suits consumerism for me to have—though I am not sure if I have any alternative.

This is the problem with the Situationist approach of detournement. Derivative by definition, it seems neutered, forced, circumscribed. Its subversiveness never actually registers on the level it would need to in order to fundamentally alter social relations or capitalism; for all its confrontationalism, it’s not actually disruptive. It just permits those subjected to capitalism feel as though they are struggling if they choose to; it permits us to redecorate our cages with more individualistic creativity, with signs of our unbroken but ineffectual spirit.

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